Women as Active Partners: Building Peace in Afghanistan

Alicia Simoni

March 6, 2006

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Located twenty kilometers from Kabul, Kamari is a village of approximately 3,000 people. Crossed with dusty, dirt roads and lined with barren streambeds, the village sits at the base of the Hindu Kush mountains. Prior to the drought that has plagued Afghanistan for the past 30 years, this area overflowed with lush, fertile fields. Today, little grows here. The day-to-day experiences of women and men in this village are representative of those in many other villages throughout the country.

When asked to tell something about themselves, women in Kamari provide a mosaic of experiences:

I have been in this village my whole life. I returned from a refugee camp in Pakistan with my family this year. I have five daughters and four sons. I am a widow with no one to help me care for my children. My only son is very sick but there is no clinic to help him. We have no water — the public well has not had water in months. I did not go to school and I do not know how to read or write. I was forced to marry when I was 16. We have no electricity in our home. I want my daughters to be educated but it is not safe for them to go to school. My husband has no work. My children do not have enough to eat.

None of these women mentioned war, yet it is the backdrop to each of their stories. They have all lived in the shadows of three decades of violent conflict and brutal oppression. I can't help but wonder if violence, fear and grief are so much a part of the fabric of these women's lives that they are taken to be a given. Older generations witnessed widespread massacre at the hands of the Soviets, utter lawlessness and violence under the Mujahideen and brutal oppression during the Taliban regime. Those who have not experienced these have inherited the memories.

In Kamari and dozens of other villages like it, an organization by the name of Women for Women International is providing thousands of Afghanistan's most socially excluded women with rights awareness and leadership education, literacy training and income generation support. It is through work with this organization that I found myself in Afghanistan in mid-2004. During that time, I spent countless hours meeting with women in small groups, listening as they told their stories of survival and of building peace.

One perception held by many outsiders is that decades of war have left Afghan society in ruins and that women are its primary victims. The prescriptive answer is often that political leaders need to rebuild the country and that Afghan women must be liberated. While listening to the experiences of women, I witnessed a different perspective on building peace — one ripe with untold possibilities embedded in everyday lives.

Integral to Women for Women International's programming are Women Group meetings. Each week twenty women from a community come together to share their stories, support one another and discuss ideas that they may otherwise not be exposed to or have the opportunity to talk about. For most of the participants, the opportunity to be with women other than their mothers, daughters, sisters, mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law is unique. An hour spent away from household responsibilities is a rarity. And an encouraging environment in which to voice their opinions is welcomed. I felt honored to take part in several of these meetings and to listen as women exchanged frustrations about their mothers-in-law, discussed the horror of a neighbor's death at the hands of her husband, lamented the struggles of returning as refugees from Pakistan, and brainstormed how to bring water to their village. A countless number of these women suffer physical abuse in their home and many of them wear a burqa in public for safety. However they are not passive victims. Given the opportunity, these women speak with hope and confidence of changing their lives, their families and their communities.

During one meeting I observed as women were told: Close your eyes. Take a few moments and silently visualize the dreams you have for your family and your community. For now try not to think about if or when or how these things will happen, just dream... Everyone is involved in rebuilding society in some way — raising children, grieving lost loved ones, rebuilding homes, voting. I would like you each to think about the ways you are helping to rebuild your community.

Underlying Women for Women International's work is a belief that building peaceful societies works best when community members — both women and men — decide what they want the future to look like. Women who are living in poverty and who may not be able to read or write are encouraged to imagine something beyond that which exists, and are empowered to play a critical role in bringing about that change.

It is difficult to think beyond crisis and imagine a desired future when you are struggling to survive in isolation. Women need the opportunity to come together in order to cultivate creative responses to established patterns of violent conflict. John Paul Lederach states in The Moral Imagination that "social change requires careful attention to the way people in their environment mix in relational spaces that provide a warm, initially somewhat separate, and therefore safe space to bring together what has not usually been brought together."[1] Lederach is writing about bringing together "not like-minded or like-situated" individuals, nonetheless in a setting like Afghanistan — where women rarely have the opportunity to share experiences and gain support from one another — it is useful to see single-identity work in this light. Violent conflict and its aftermath impacts women's lives in ways that differ significantly from men's lives. Transforming a society marked by thirty years of violence necessitates acknowledging these differences — and providing women with the opportunity to find support and solidarity.

The rhetoric of gender mainstreaming is increasingly common in post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding, yet the reality of women as equal partners in building peace remains an exception. Women are a critical component of the interdependent relationships that comprise a community; nevertheless the unique position they occupy is often under-valued and over-simplified. Women are assumed to be little other than either victims or survivors. The space of potential exists in acknowledging women's many roles as active partners in peacebuilding. As important as it is for women to be involved in formal peace processes and for women's rights to be integrated into constitution-writing, it is also crucial for women's daily experiences to be given voice. Both women and men are critical to the web of relationships that characterize human interaction. Both women-specific programs and gender-aware strategies are necessary in order to transcend the dynamics of violent conflict.

Shortly after I left Afghanistan in August 2004, the country's historic presidential elections took place. In the days and months leading up to the election, Women for Women International dedicated many Women Group meetings to discussing voter education. At this time, local warlords throughout the country were attempting to undermine the election process by buying individual voter registration cards for hundreds of dollars each. In a country where very few have paid work and those that do often receive less than $10 per day, the warlord's offer is nearly irresistible. Yet a colleague excitedly told me that one woman in Kamari was eager to report to other women that she had resisted selling her card. She had also convinced her neighbor not to sell it by sharing her knowledge of the importance of women's right to vote. In this same region, when ballots were counted, it was announced that 757 women voted, as compared to 625 men. Women in Kamari, and in countless other villages like it, are building peace on a daily basis.

[1] Lederach, John Paul. 2005. The Moral Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 92.