Five years ago, as the newly appointed and first woman president of the United States Institute of Peace, I was celebrating International Women’s Day in Kabul with the wonderful Afghan women on our USIP country team. Having first visited Afghanistan in 1997, when the country was in the grip of the Taliban, it was a joyous opportunity to mark nearly two decades of progress with this group of professional women—lawyers, scholars, and program managers. And since then, it has been heartening to see the continued rise of impressive Afghan women into key leadership roles, including the first Afghan woman ambassador to the U.S. Roya Rahmani, chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission Shaharzad Akbar, and director of the Afghan Women’s Network Mari Akrami, who, along with Akbar, participated in the Doha negotiations with the Taliban and has been fighting for women’s meaningful inclusion in the peace process.

Maria Bashir, the chief prosecutor of the Afghan province of Herat, outside a hotel during a conference for Afghan prosecutors in Kabul. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Maria Bashir, the chief prosecutor of the Afghan province of Herat, outside a hotel during a conference for Afghan prosecutors in Kabul. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

To be clear: women in Afghanistan and women around the world still face significant barriers to economic equality, safety, and meaningful representation in all facets of society. These eye-opening U.N. Women charts drive home how many yawning gaps remain. But celebrating important progress is vital for fueling the journey ahead, and in the last five years, I have taken heart in the inspiring breakthroughs that help mitigate the sobering headlines.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, here are a few of those bright spots that remind us what’s possible.

2015: Advances in Combatting Gender-Based Violence

From legislation to innovative individual action, 2015 saw advances on the critical issues of gender-based violence. Importantly, Nigeria banned female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2015. Though it will take time for cultural practices and deeply ingrained beliefs to catch up with the legislation, as many advocates have noted, FGM rates have declined in Nigeria. Estimates indicate a 7-9 percent decline in FGM, which translates to millions of women and girls being spared from this practice. As Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria’s move to ban FGM sent a message to the rest of the continent and the world and helped spark further conversation and action. In 2018, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf banned FGM in Liberia. 

Individuals like gender activist and founder and CEO of Red Dot Foundation (Safecity) ElsaMarie D’Silva are making a difference at the local level. In 2015, USIP was pleased to support her organization in its deployment of technology to document sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces and track thousands of reports of assault. D’Silva has supplied this data to city police forces in India to encourage them to devote resources to places with higher instances of gender-based violence and raise awareness of this pervasive threat to women.

2016: Former Child Brides Win Victory Against Child Marriage

Multiple countries have made strides in ending child marriage in the last five years, including countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Zimbabwe made especially heartening progress in 2016 when two former victims of child marriage argued in court for this harmful practice to be made illegal and unconstitutional. They won their case, leading Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court to outlaw child marriage. That same year, the State Department launched the Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, which includes provisions on ending child, early, and forced marriage. It was an important milestone that recognized the distinct challenges of adolescent girls and ultimately helped support increased awareness and attention to a practice that robs girls of their future.

USIP has captured the lessons learned from women in Iraq and Afghanistan as they fight for their rights.  Notably, Afghan women have used religious leaders as allies in the fight to end child marriage by emphasizing the need for safe marriages and characterizing the issue as forming healthy family relationships from an Islamic perspective. Research from USIP’s Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) underscores how ending child marriage is integral to the WPS agenda—which brings me to the next important marker of progress.

2017: The U.S. Passes the Women, Peace, and Security Act

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) led the passage of the U.S. Women, Peace, and Security Act to increase women’s participation in resolving violence and conflict as negotiators, mediators, and security actors, recognizing the crucial role that women play. Importantly, the legislation was designed to build on the priorities outlined in the United States’ National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.

I have had the chance to meet and support courageous women working on their own country’s National Action Plans in places still emerging from conflict, like Iraq, Colombia, and Burma. The irrepressible Suzan Aref, who leads efforts to advance the 1325 National Action Plan in Iraq, was recently nominated as one of the world’s most innovative women in 2020 for her work on gender diversity and equality in Iraq by the Women Empowerment Organization. Under the able leadership of Chair Fauziya Abdi Ali, our partner Sisters Without Borders in Kenya has become a go-to resource for Kenyan women members of parliament on issues of gender and violent extremism and has been an important champion of Kenya’s 2016 National Action Plan.

2018: Nadia Murad Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Despite her soul-crushing personal experience as a Yazidi survivor of the ISIS genocide, Nadia Murad found the courage and conviction to raise her voice internationally on behalf of all the women and children who are victims of abuse and human trafficking. Along with Dr. Denis Mukwege, another fierce champion of victims of sexual abuse and the founder of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Murad was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.  

I met with several young Yazidi women at Lalish Temple in Northern Iraq last year, who have similar stories of surviving the horror of their ISIS captors. Finding the resilience to rebuild their lives may be a long-term challenge for many survivors, which is why women like Murad are important beacons of hope and strength. At an event at USIP last year, Murad reminded the audience that many Yazidis have yet to return home, and significant challenges to justice and reconciliation remain. She is a powerful voice in calling for renewed action and commitment to enabling the safe return of the Yazidi people and displaced Iraqis.

2019: Women Leading Movements Around the World

In this momentous year of people power, it was women who led powerful movements and protests. A young woman named Alaa Salah became the inspiring face of the uprising in Sudan, which ended up toppling one of the world’s longest standing dictators. And she wasn’t alone—more than 70 percent of Sudan’s protesters were female, according to the BBC. Across the globe, women were behind many of the historic uprisings of 2019, leading the way in Colombia and Iraq as well as Sudan. 

Research co-authored by USIP’s Maria Stephan demonstrates nonviolent campaigns are twice as effective as violent ones at achieving their goals. As USIP’s experts have noted, women’s leadership in nonviolent movements opens up a wider variety of more inclusive and more creative tactics, with inclusiveness a central element to the success of nonviolent campaigns. A recent study demonstrates that movements with women’s active participation are more likely to stick to nonviolent discipline and reach their objectives.

2020 and Beyond: UNSCR 1325 Turns 20. We Recommit to Action.

Looking ahead, the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 is a great moment to accelerate our efforts and recommit ourselves to seeing big wins for women around the world. With important progress, we still have much more to do in addressing the many ways in which women and girls are affected by conflict and war and recognizing and supporting the role that women play in building peace. With the potential for an intra-Afghan dialogue on the horizon, it is important to heed the compelling evidence that meaningful inclusion of women is essential for negotiating a more durable peace.

For our part, USIP will honor an extraordinary woman peacebuilder in October with the inaugural Women Building Peace Award, heralding the vital accomplishments of women peacebuilders that are too often unseen and unheralded. 

No one singular accomplishment defines progress over these last five years. But progress is clear and discernible, even it often doesn’t happen as quickly as we wish. These milestones assure me that when we make progress for women, women become leaders for progress—leading movements and demonstrations, lending their voice to shine a light on critical issues, passing legislation, and helping to build peace in their communities. In short, these victories get at the heart of a central message of this year’s International Women’s Day: An equal world is an enabled world, and we all have a role to play in building it.

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