By Mary Sturgis
Our research began in December with an overview of contemporary Afghan history, with a particular focus on the role of women in society during Taliban rule and the gains made for women’s rights since its fall in 2001. In an initial meeting with the founder of our client, the Women Activities and Social Services Association (WASSA), Dr. Nilofar Sakhi, requested the following three deliverables:
1) A historical mapping of women’s roles in Afghanistan since 2001;
2) An assessment of WASSA’s current assets and capabilities;
3) And new project proposals in support of WASSA’s goals.
From January to April of 2020, we had the unique opportunity to meet with prominent policymakers and academics, including Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the U.S., Roya Rahmani, gender-oriented peace expert, Dr. Carla Koppell, and Afghanistan expert, Palwasha Kakar. Individually, our group members met with over 30 practitioners and subject-matter experts specializing in mediation, development, Islamic law, religion, peace processes, and women’s activism. These discussions provided unparalleled insights into women’s activism in Afghanistan and the political and cultural barriers to gender equality. The content and quality of our final proposals reflect the expertise and experience of each of these conversations.
It probably will not surprise you to learn that we were unable to travel to Doha, Qatar as planned in March 2020 due to COVID-19. While we are disappointed not to be able to meet with WFI and Afghan advocates, we are grateful that technology has given us the ability to continue our work with WASSA. Through a series of Zoom interviews with non-profit representatives and other stakeholders, we were able to craft proposals that reflect the unique circumstances of life in Afghanistan.
We also had the opportunity to meet virtually with women activists, artists, and civil society leaders from across Afghanistan who provided perspectives as to what inclusive peace in Afghanistan might look like. Connecting with these extraordinary leaders allowed us to further focus our research, ensure that our efforts were not overly duplicative, and discuss the complexities of project implementation in the country.
Upon completing our initial research, each member of our team focused on a specific project that could advance WASSA’s work. Proposals focused on concrete, implementable projects to improve the position of women in society in the medium-term and could reshape gender norms in the long term. We offered new radio programming, entrepreneurship and skills training initiatives, peace building training, reintegration programs for ex-combatants, and male allyship frameworks for WASSA to consider as ways to strategically build upon their existing capabilities. In doing so, we believe that these initiatives can expand their impact and increase their efficacy while leveraging the organization’s many strengths. When asked about the impact of this collaborative project, WASSA executive director Said Sayedi explained, “it will help WASSA develop bottom-up approaches to peace.”
On April 30th, 2020, our team had the opportunity to present our final report, entitled “Building Peace for All: Women’s Advocacy for a Future Afghanistan” to leading diplomats and subject-matter experts at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Her Excellency Ambassador Sheika Alya Al-Thani and Her Excellency Roya Rahmani contextualized our work in broader diplomatic efforts to support sustainable and inclusive peace in Afghanistan. All of the members of our team walked away hopeful that our project proposals might one day become a reality, supporting the global effort to Afghan support women as they retain their hard fought rights and continue to advance their freedoms.
Coordinating a global project entirely online and in a time of crisis was not the training that we had necessarily envisioned in December. However, we know that it is preparing us to become effective foreign policy practitioners in an increasingly interconnected and complex world. We are grateful for the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to an inclusive peace in Afghanistan during this pivotal moment, and look forward to applying the insights we gained on the importance of inclusive peace in our future careers in international service.