As Afghans, the United States and the international community seek an end to the war in Afghanistan, the country’s first lady, Rula Ghani, says thousands of Afghan women nationwide have expressed a clear consensus on two points. They insist that the war needs to end, and that the peace to follow must continue to build opportunities for women. The single greatest step to advance Afghan women’s cause is education and training to build their professional capacities, Ghani told an audience at USIP.

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani spoke November 14 at USIP. “Afghanistan is progressing … in the right direction,” she said. “I want to tell everybody who has sacrificed for Afghanistan that their effort was not in vain.”
Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani spoke November 14 at USIP. “Afghanistan is progressing … in the right direction,” she said. “I want to tell everybody who has sacrificed for Afghanistan that their effort was not in vain.”

Ghani describes herself as the “first lady for all Afghans,” and underscores that she listens widely to their concerns. She has urged respect and opportunities for women, and the protection of vulnerable Afghans, especially children, uprooted and impoverished by the country’s 40 years of warfare. In the past 15 months, as U.S. diplomats, the Taliban and others have fitfully explored opportunities for a peace process, Ghani worked with government and civil society groups to energize a series of forums nationwide that gathered and publicized women’s views on the country’s future.  That process, called the National Women’s Consensus for Peace, ran for six months and consulted with an estimated 15,000 women nationwide. Ghani discussed its findings—and her effort to feed them into an eventual peace process—with an audience of diplomats, civil society activists and international affairs professionals at USIP.

Formal diplomatic peace efforts have been delayed since September by Afghanistan’s presidential election and President Trump’s announcement of a halt to official U.S. talks with the Taliban. But Afghan women should continue, Ghani said, to build a unified stance to strengthen their voice in peace talks that Afghans and experts see as the country’s best path to its future.

USIP has supported that effort, in part by gathering 25 women leaders from nearly half of Afghanistan’s provinces in Istanbul recently for a workshop to strategize on eventual peace talks with the Taliban. They worked with women veterans of similar processes in Colombia and the Philippines. As Afghan women prepare, they build on experience at local levels, where numerous women have successfully negotiated with Taliban to meet women’s demands in their communities.

What Should Women Surrender?

“Women are now visible in Afghanistan,” said Ghani. “That, maybe, is the most important observation I can make. They are in all spaces”—government, jurisprudence and many professions, she said. They are demanding, and gaining, respect for their roles, she said.

Yet like other Afghan women activists, Ghani noted that current public debate on a peace process typically asks “whether they [Afghan women] should sacrifice their recent achievements for the ‘higher goal’ of achieving peace.” Before the audience, Ghani and USIP President and CEO Nancy Lindborg—just returned from a visit to Kabul—recounted hearing women’s determination not to do so. “Many of the women I met made it clear that they don’t want just to protect the gains that they’ve made over the last 18 years, they want to expand them,” Lindborg said.

The national consultation process promoted by Ghani—and documented on the first lady’s official website—evoked that insistence in statements by the groups of women consulted in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Many of the women gathered in the provinces lived in areas controlled by the Taliban, Ghani noted—and their concerns echoed those of women from government-controlled regions. One striking statement emerged from a meeting of about 500 women in one of the country’s most isolated and impoverished provinces—Nimroz, in the far southwest, on Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and Pakistan.

“We women of Nimroz province, despite having strong potential in various areas, have always felt the bitter truth of deprivation because we are far away from the center of the country,” the English translation of the women’s statement said. “We still raise our voice of peace along with all other mothers and sisters from all over the country and declare the following: We are tired of sitting on the carpet of pain and sorrow … throughout our lives, and we want peace so that we are no longer concerned about losing our loved ones while they are traveling, … or praying in the masjid, or at Eid celebrations, or at weddings, or other gatherings.”

Women Speak from Nimroz

“Education is our religious and legitimate right and we want peace so that we can get an education in the most remote parts of the country,” the statement said. “We are fed up of the violence committed toward our mothers, sisters and daughters. We want peace so that no man … would feel protected from the rule of law to commit cruelty and crimes against women.” The statement ruled out concessions of women’s rights in exchange for peace, vowing to “defend each and every achievement of ours during recent years.”

From the audience, at USIP, several Afghan women studying in the United States asked Ghani about the changes in their homeland. To a hush in the room, a refugee and graduate student recounted, “I was raised … to remain silent” about suffering men’s violence, even sexual assaults. She asked how this ingrained thinking can be reversed.

“It sounds to me like a visit to Afghanistan” would reveal an altered culture, Ghani told her from the stage. “It’s a change of mentality,” notably “among the young people, people of your generation.” The “norms that you have mentioned” are “becoming challenged, day after day.”

To questioners who asked about the next priority, Ghani was concise: “The best help you can give Afghan women is to help them get more professional and more skilled” through education and training.

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