Women's club in Afghanistan

Why this peace process cannot fail the women of Afghanistan - again

. By Asuntha Charles

Afghanistan peace talks have resumed in my adopted country, offering some renewed hope that more than 40 years of continuous war will come to an end. But the world should realise that these talks will never truly be successful, that conflict will not end, until the voices of those representing more than half of Afghanistan’s population have a meaningful voice at the table, namely women and girls.

It is not lost on me that the peace talks come at a time when people around the globe mark International Women’s Day. Surely, as we “choose to challenge gender bias and inequality”, we need to come to a collective recognition that Women’s Day can’t really be called “international” until places like Afghanistan can fully join the celebration.

Many people are familiar with the extreme challenges facing Afghanistan. Most likely, you'll know how Afghanistan suffers from the ongoing effects of invasions and war, and you will have probably read shocking headlines about the oppression of women. Yes, Afghanistan remains 170th of 189 countries on the UN Gender Equality Index. And it’s true that women and girls continue to experience the daily threat of physical and sexual violence, early and forced marriage and limited access to education, health care and even food.

But you should also know that there is hope. I personally know this hope. I was raised in a traditional south Indian family in a traditional society. I had to fight for my dreams whilst enduring intense pressure from friends and family to get married and start a family. But I “chose to challenge”, and I became the first woman in my family to travel abroad and to live independently.

I know from experience the incredible potential that can be unlocked in women. My journey took me to Afghanistan, and I rose through the ranks to become the female leader of one of the largest NGOs operating in another very conservative context.

I am not alone. Over the past two decades Afghan women trailblazers have led real progress in the struggle for social, political, legal, and leadership participation. Today, girls represent nearly 40% of children enrolled in school, and women are active in political and economic life. Women are mayors, entrepreneurs, police officers, and doctors. Our representation in Parliament has reached 27% - not quite equal, but heading in the right direction.

In my role, I am doing all I can to help support equity and opportunity for Afghan women and girls as they continue to realise their rights. We foster women’s economic empowerment and community engagement to stop harmful practices like child marriage to keep girls in school. In areas where we work, 88% of children report they will choose to stay in school instead of getting married, compared to other areas where 35% of girls are married as children and drop out of school. By working closely with families, faith leaders and authorities at all levels, we are achieving more education for girls and, ultimately, positive change in Afghanistan.  

This peace process cannot fail the women of Afghanistan again; it will mean catastrophe for the entire country. The research is in. There is a strong correlation between instability at the national level and the diminishment of women’s voices, rights and agency in the home. We know that to reach a lasting peace, we must have women's participation at every step of the process, and in every part of society.

The only viable solution for Afghanistan is to put conflict and instability in the rearview mirror. Turning our backs on Afghanistan is not an option.

Women and girls are dynamic agents of change. Educated girls can be the decision makers of tomorrow. They are not passive victims waiting for more barriers to come down. When they have access to opportunities they can and will change Afghanistan - and the world.

Asuntha Charles is the World Vision Afghanistan National Director. With more than 15 years of experience with humanitarian assistance and community development, she is a strong advocate for women's and children's rights.