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The Future of Afghanistan is its Young Women and Men

WRN spoke to Aarya Nijat, a founding partner at Duran, a Kabul-based research firm, and a policy analyst in governance, leadership, and transboundary waters. She is also a member of a joint Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego, research team studying the rollout of the Mobile Salaries Initiative by the Afghan government. Prior to that, she was the Director of Institutional Development and Policy at the Government of Afghanistan, where she pioneered a key institutional reform on workplace harassment. She has advised most major international organizations working in Afghanistan, and has supported the Afghan government in developing one of its long-term national programs focusing on women’s economic empowerment. She holds MPA from Harvard, MSc. in International Relations and a double bachelor in law and political science.

The international community and media still largely portray Afghanistan as a backwater and its women as oppressed victims in need of “saving”. While acknowledging the immense challenges that women face in the country, what would you consider as some of the positive trends and progress of the past 20 years?

Unlike what the western media likes to project, Afghanistan is not a society of monstrous men and helpless women. Afghanistan, like many other countries including the United States, is a traditional society with a social division of labor between women and men. Being broadly traditional, however, does not equate to being uncivilized or in need of saving and this view is gaining popularity within Afghanistan, particularly in urban areas. There is growing acknowledgement among international actors and the local government that a society cannot progress unless both its men and women prosper and together contribute to their families’ well-being. Family is a critical and most vital unit of social life in Afghanistan which although still patriarchal and male-dominated in most cases, has begun to value women’s contribution beyond their traditional roles at home.

Education has become a national priority for Afghans. Families today, should security conditions permit, are sending both their sons and daughters to school. Afghanistan today has the historical record number of educated men and women up to the Master level and thus there is a strong pool of young, trained professionals. The presence of international organizations along with educational opportunities for Afghans abroad, and the boom in the telecom sector have led to expanded connectivity and people are now exposed to a wider global community. Technology and social media have also provided citizens with an important avenue for political participation: they can share their opinions, be more active in holding government authorities accountable, mobilize for protests, organize fundraising activities etc. Last but not the least, the near collapse of the country’s economy following the departure of international military forces in 2014, has taught Afghans to rely on each other and on internal resources. This phase is ongoing and will continue for sometime.

Your research has shown that international efforts post-2001 to alleviate Afghan women’s status and promote their leadership roles have often backfired. Women leaders are seen as “empty symbols”, they lack support from their families and communities, and their activities are largely donor dependent. Has there been any significant shift in donor and domestic policies in the past few years in this field? In order to bring about meaningful changes in women’s space for leadership, what needs to happen?

Yes, there has been a shift in both donor and domestic approach to women’s empowerment. The development sector in Afghanistan increasingly engages with women while also acknowledging the existing social context and their key roles at the family level. There is also a great need for Afghans to expand and redefine the parameters of leadership, for both men and women. Equating leadership with authority is a restricted and narrow view. A society can prosper if its citizens can find opportunities; simply wielding power is not enough to create opportunities. Promoting women’s leadership, therefore, should not be limited to increasing their numbers in the parliament or the cabinet.We need to value women who have excelled in their chosen field and view them as leaders. Being a good teacher is an act of leadership. Being a good gynecologist is an act of leadership. Being a good mother who raises children to respect women and men and does not discriminate between them based on their sexuality is also an act of leadership. The day we learn to be good at whatever we can do and enjoy doing, we will make progress.

What is your assessment of Afghanistan’s first ‘anti-sexual harassment’ policy that you helped create? What are its strengths and what are some of the barriers preventing its implementation?

The anti-sexual harassment policy guideline, that I along with my colleagues designed and endorsed in 2013 played a critical role in breaking the ice on this issue, which to that point, at least within the public sector, was considered a taboo. It paved the way for others to take similar initiatives in their own respective fields. Television documentaries were made and viewed widely. Student protesters asked for anti-harassment laws in educational institutions. Artists depicted the negative behavior in their work. One particular song by a famous Afghan singer Aryana Sayeed became very popular and was very well received. Eventually, when President Ghani was sworn in, he took action and instructed relevant agencies to work on anti-harassment legislation. By making the safety of women at workplaces and educational institutions a national priority, the President speeded the pace of this institutional reform. Today we have a law on harassment in school and college campuses. Every single civil society organization includes this on their agenda and there is increased social awareness among the masses.

Having said this, we are far from deep social transformation when it comes to gender relations in Afghanistan and as mentioned above, such change is going to take time and requires collective participation. Governments, civil society organizations or individuals can trigger social transformation processes but cannot make them happen, unless a majority of the population wants it and wants it badly. The policy guideline that I helped get endorsed was a successful trigger, but meaningful social change is still a long way off.

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