Peace building in Afghanistan


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WAR has existed in Afghanistan, uninterruptedly, for the past 30 years. Even so, there has been a remarkable evolution in the situation of Afghan women over the past decade.

Afghan women could neither play a significant role in the resistance of the 1980s, nor in preventing the excesses of the civil war that ended in Taliban rule in 1996. Yet, they are indispensable now for keeping the peace.

Since the fall of the Taliban government in November 2001, women have participated in the loya jirgah, the constitutional loya jirgah, the interim and transitional administrations, and following the adoption of the new constitution, in the presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections, besides also finding a prominent place in government and civil society institutions.

Women have been active in the community development councils set up under the National Solidarity Programme – a rural development programme rolled out nationwide for the implementation of community-managed local level development projects, particularly in Hazarazat.1

As Ambassador to Afghanistan until June 2010, I came across many examples of outstanding leadership by women in peace building in the country. Sima Samar has served with daring and distinction as the first Minister for Women’s Affairs in the interim administration and is currently the Chairperson of the Independent Human Rights Commission. She has laid the foundation for the protection and promotion of human rights in Afghanistan and has challenged the constitutionality of legislation on grounds of non-conformance with international human rights instruments or the principles of gender equality. Another example of courage and leadership is that of Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, still in her twenties. She was chosen by Radio Free Europe’s Afghan chapter as its ‘person of the year’ in 2009 for her campaign to promote the rights of women and minorities.

A veritable role model for young women aspiring to join public services was Lt. Col. Malalai Kakar, the highest ranked woman police officer in Kandahar, and the first woman to enrol in the Afghan police following the ouster of the Taliban. She was shot dead by waiting gunmen on motorcycles outside her protected compound on 28 September 2008. Only 41, she left behind a husband and six children. Her eldest son, 18, driving her to office, was also shot in the head. Kakar was a brave and decorated officer who had helped in tracking and arresting scores of criminals and terrorists. A Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi, laconically announced after her killing: ‘She was our target and we successfully eliminated our target.’2 She was the deputy head of the Kandahar city police and head of its unit for crimes against women, leading a group of 10 policewomen. Her example motivated other women to join the Afghan police force.


Under the new, democratic constitution, women have equal rights. 69 of them are represented in the 249-member lower house of the Afghan Parliament, the wolesi jirgah, one more than in the 2005 election, for which elections were held on 18 September 2010. This constitutes 27% representation of women in Parliament, even if on the basis of reservation, compared to 9% in India. Of the six million children in schools, 38% are girls, compared to one million boys in schools in 2001. And, with every passing year, enrolment of girls is increasing in Afghan universities, as indeed, is the number of girls applying for university scholarships to study in India.

The cost of not involving women in conflict prevention and, where this has not worked, in peacemaking and peace building, has not been empirically measured. Conventional wisdom, however, is that this cost has been high. That is the philosophy that underpins the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on ‘Women, Peace and Security’.

Women are fully on the side of the constituency of peace, the council affirmed, because women and children ‘account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons, and increasingly are targeted by combatants and armed elements.’ The council rightly recognized the important role of women ‘in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace building.’ It, therefore, sought greater representation of women in all decision-making levels for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts and called for supportive action for conflict resolution and peacekeeping to be buttressed by gender mainstreaming.3 

Ten years have passed since the adoption of the Security Council’s normative framework to increase women’s participation in peace processes and advancing security. It is now a UN mantra that only women’s full participation can allow sustainable peace. Yet, there is no consistency or accountability in implementing this resolution. Women and girls continue to suffer abuse the same way as before 2000 in both conflict and post-conflict situations.


Some of the major problems that have come in the way of implementing SCR 1325 include the impunity for crimes against women in the conflict-affected states, the exclusion of women from political processes that determine their future, and the inadequate national and international efforts to create an enabling environment for greater participation of women in peace building, reconstruction, and reintegration. Again, Afghanistan is no exception to this trend.

In its development partnership with Afghanistan, India consciously promotes the creation of economic and livelihood opportunities for bringing about peace and stability in the country. This has been done especially through India’s Small Development Projects in the social sectors, with an emphasis on building community schools and public health centres, besides a more focused effort on human resource development, in all of which women are significant beneficiaries.


Indian programmes in Afghanistan are particularly tailored to build institutional capacity within society and government for sustaining Afghanistan’s development. They are also tailored to mitigate the negative consequences of the absence of peace and empower Afghan women to contribute to the making of a new, progressive, democratic and pluralist Afghanistan, in tune with the culture and genius of its people. That is why the recent gender-related Indian initiatives are an integral part of the overarching architecture of India’s assistance to Afghanistan.

Some of the most recent India-assisted projects, initiated in response to requests from either the Afghan government or civil society include:

* In 2009-10, with Government of India’s financial support, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) provided training in commercial tailoring and garment making to 216 women, of whom 188 qualified for certificates awarded by the City and Guilds London Institute. (Training was also provided to 973 men in construction-related skills.)

* During the past four years (2006-2010), 146 Afghan women were awarded scholarships by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, for undergraduate and postgraduate studies in India, an average of just over 36 for each year. In the current academic year (2010-11), 45 women have been awarded ICCR scholarships. Five of the scholarship holders are studying medicine at the Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi.

* During the last two years (2008-10), 78 Afghan women public officials were trained in India in the same institutions where Indian public servants are trained, under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Scheme.


In addition, India has assisted other donors, such as UNDP, USAID, and European development agencies like GTZ, in organizing human resource development related activities in Indian institutions. The most recent programmes are:

* Training of 22 senior women leaders selected from different Afghan provinces at the Institute of Government Accounts and Finance (INGAF in April 2010) through lectures, case studies, and experience-sharing with eminent Indian women parliamentarians, academicians, policy-makers and analysts, media experts, and social activists.

* Participation of 16 senior Afghan women professionals in a workshop on ‘Leadership and Change Management’, focused on gender mainstreaming, again at INGAF in May 2010.

* A special programme for 17 Afghan women officials in ‘Leadership and Management’ at the Administrative Staff College of India in Hyderabad in June 2010.

* Participation of Afghan women, since 2008, in GOI-supported intra-South Asian exchanges of women media personalities from the eight SAARC countries and Myanmar; a group of Afghan women journalists participated at the next conference under this initiative in November 2010 at the International Centre, Goa, where one of the focal issues discussed was ‘Peace, Security and Conflict Prevention’.

In an interesting experiment, in partnership with the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the Government of Afghanistan, India has provided, over the past three years, the services of 30 Indian civil servants to work as advisors and coaches in various Afghanistan line ministries under a trilateral ‘Capacity for the Afghanistan Public Service’ (CAP) project. One of the Indian women officials under CAP drew up a ‘Gender Mainstreaming Strategy for Afghanistan’, first presented at a UNDP-sponsored workshop in November 2008.

In addition, India has supported, during 2008-10, two flagship women-centred pilot activities executed by the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the largest Indian organization of working women, and Hand-in-Hand Afghanistan (HHA), among the very first projects abroad in which GOI partnered with NGOs.


The SEWA project entailed the training of 1,036 women in livelihood options in the areas of garments, stitching and embroidery, food processing, and eco-regeneration. Thirty two Afghan trainers, first brought to Ahmedabad for three months for a thorough immersion in SEWA methods and philosophy, conducted the programme, with minimum hand-holding and support from visiting experts from India. In our interaction with the Afghan women trainees, we saw how they reflected the SEWA spirit of solidarity, sisterhood, non-violence and simplicity.

The Afghan Women’s Vocational Training Centre in Baugh-e-Zenana, a women’s only park in central Kabul, was the training venue. SEWA set up a model kitchen there, provided the tools and machines, and created a demonstration greenhouse for hot beds, rosary, garden and landscape design, and replication of plants. 62% of the trainees were war widows, with the balance made up of orphans and destitute, most of whom were illiterate, had no special skills, and had never before contributed financially to their families’ welfare. Formation of self-help groups and setting up plans for production and livelihood through the development of marketing skills was part of the project design.

The HHA project successfully adapted, in the provinces of Balkh and Badakhshan, a self-help group model for job creation that was perfected in Tamil Nadu, India. This was done through the creation of self-help groups and by encouraging the members to learn new livelihood skills, formulate business plans, get loans and start their own small businesses from their homes. The expectation is that this could develop into a larger Afghan model of creating savings and credit groups, which could possibly be rolled out nationwide under the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Programme. Besides enterprise creation, the self-help groups also benefited from sensitization to the education needs of their children, public health, child labour eradication, and the environment.


The HHA project resulted in creating an estimated 10,000 jobs, lifting a large number of families out of poverty, and bringing about positive awareness about the potential benefits of micro finance in the surrounding communities. Like the SEWA project, the HHA programme was also run through Afghan trainers (with an Indian professional, Usha Valli Soumasundaram, heading the project). To suit the social sensitivities and the needs of the Afghan people, a special effort was made to persuade the local mullahs to permit women to come out of their family system and homes to the training venues and to provide interest-free loans, conforming to the Sharia.

The SEWA and HHA were flagships of hope. They brought optimism to women in need or distress. Women trainees exuded strength and self-assurance at the end of the programmes. The outcomes included greater bonding between the trainees cutting across ethnic lines, their ability to quickly learn the crafts and trades, organize themselves to locate jobs and business opportunities, and most important of all, develop the confidence to face the world. Both SEWA and HHA expect that their model of building local capacity and skills of trainees and indigenous women’s organizations would guarantee the sustainability of the pilot projects and lead to their replication in other parts of Afghanistan. These modest contributions will help sow the seeds for a movement of women’s empowerment in Afghanistan. By building their own human capital, hopefully, Afghan women will become the natural peace builders within their communities.


Faced with a resurgent Taliban, sustained and supported from their safe havens, western countries are losing their resolve in Afghanistan. They are in a mood to quit, throwing away the gains made in the past decade – reflected in the growing enrolment of girls in schools, colleges and universities, the protection measures extending personal and social rights to women, and the affirmative action that has brought Afghan women into public life. An exit from Afghanistan or a quick-fix settlement with the Taliban will be a catastrophe for Afghanistan, for the region, and for the world. What we need instead is the longue durée; patience, perseverance and long-term engagement, though not necessarily military.

I saw first-hand in Afghanistan how women, along with children, had suffered more than men from a lack of peace. Terrorism and insurgency, encouraged from Afghanistan’s contiguity, continues to be particularly directed against them. Women professionals, especially school teachers, have been selectively targeted over the past decade and many schools for girls destroyed. The women who inhabit the war zones are deprived of their very basic rights and freedoms – the freedom to walk, talk, laugh and live like normal human beings. Indeed, the longest form of human domination in history might be that by men over women. In addition, each society has specific factors that engender women’s disempowerment or marginalization. These are economic, cultural or geopolitical, or a combination of them. War exacerbates this already difficult situation. As a result, women naturally develop an antipathy to terrorist organizations and extremist ideologies and a strong stake in peace.


Though women constitute only a tiny fraction of combatants in violent conflict, they become its biggest sufferers. Notwithstanding the Geneva Conventions, between three-fourth to nine-tenth of casualties of recent conflicts have been civilians, of whom women and children constitute the majority. Recent examples of civil war and societal conflicts demonstrate that women become victims of flagrant and persistent sexual violence, used as a means of demoralizing and subjugating entire communities. A majority of the 1.5 billion people in the world living on a one dollar or less are women on the margins.4 They are the ones most vulnerable to natural or man-made disasters, including wars.

All four Geneva Conventions provide that the specific categories of persons they protect must be humanely treated without adverse distinction founded on sex. The Third Geneva Convention offers both generic and specific protection to women by parties to an armed conflict. Women are to be treated with ‘all the regard due to their sex’ and female prisoners of war provided separate detention quarters and sanitary facilities and placed under the immediate supervision of women, if confined.5 These are observed, unfortunately, more in the breach.


Despite these impediments, given their propensity to embrace non-violent means of political mobilization, women have managed to productively intervene in various stages of peacemaking and peace building in several instances. They have done so by spurring the end of violence by urging the combatants to settle their differences amicably as a prelude to a political settlement, by actively promoting the trust-building process between adversaries, by encouraging peace and reconciliation through the redressal of injustices, by assisting in negotiations, and post-settlement, rehabilitating and rebuilding societal and state structures for livelihood and development.

Women have also mobilized effectively in the face of war. In Liberia, Christian and Muslim women came together in 2003 to pray for peace and stage silent protests outside the presidential palace to end the civil war, now celebrated in a documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The film depicts how, in the face of the imminent collapse of the peace talks and the siege of Monrovia by rebels, women formed a thin line between the opposing forces, demanding an end to fighting. These efforts led to the exile of Charles Taylor and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first woman President. And fittingly, in January 2007, India sent an all-woman police contingent of 82 officers to serve as part of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), an event widely cheered in Liberia and the world.6 This has encouraged women to join the police force in Liberia, an example that is pertinent to Afghanistan.


An innovative approach in mediating between warring parties and in mediating for peace and reconciliation across the political divides has been well-demonstrated by Naga women in India. Some 3,000 mothers from different Naga tribes launched the ‘Shed No More Blood’ campaign under the banner of the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA). NMA and the Naga Women’s Movement of Manipur (NWUM) have worked together both with the underground armed leaders and the security forces to mobilize communities for reconciliation, sustaining the ceasefire and promoting an inclusive peace process. As interlocutors and facilitators, they have traversed conflict lines and fighting factions and encouraged the participation of different tribes and neighbouring states and communities in the non-violent peace efforts.7 The cases of Liberia and Nagaland show how very important it is for women to participate actively as stakeholders in peace building efforts.

Establishing security, peace and stability in Afghanistan is one of the foremost challenges confronting the international community. For the consolidation of peace, women have a key role in ensuring that the process of reconstruction is not disrupted and the positive transition, currently underway, is not reversed. In most post-conflict situations, and Afghanistan is no exception to this general trend, women’s active and constructive role as potential peace builders tends to be overlooked. Development agencies and bilateral donors must view Afghan women less as victims and recipients of assistance and more as agents of stability and progress who must be empowered and integrated into the governance structures.

Rumi, the great Afghan Sufi poet, born in Balkh 800 years ago, reflected in his Masnavi that a woman is ‘the light of God’ and ‘the creator, not the created.’ The position of women has changed dramatically in Afghanistan, both in the workplace and in governance. Afghan women today are police officers and parliamentarians. The participation by women in economic, political and social life is good not just for women but for society at large. The role of women has a bearing on the future of pluralism, democracy and social progress in Afghanistan.


For peace, reintegration and reconciliation in Afghanistan to be durable, the peace process will have to be predicated on insurgents and terrorists abjuring violence, accepting the constitution, and cutting off their ideological and organizational links with terrorist organizations. As important will be the inclusiveness of the process, as much in terms of involvement of the different ethnicities that constitute Afghanistan, as by including women’s organizations in the consultations, for they have pressing concerns about the possible compromises entailed in any future settlement in Afghanistan.



1. Harjot Kaur and Najla Ayubi, ‘Status of Women in Afghanistan’, paper presented at the seminar on ‘Indian and Afghan Women Between Tradition and Modernity’, India-Afghanistan Foundation, Kabul, 30 June-1 July 2009, pp. 10 and 14.


3. Resolution 1325 (2000) adopted by the United Nations Security Council at its 4213th meeting on 31 October 2000.

4. Jimmy C. Dabhi, ‘Women on the Margins and the role of NGOs in India’, International. Journal of Indian Culture and Business Management 2(4), 2009, p. 397.

5. Third Geneva Convention relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 1949.

6., published 2007/01/31/11:36:29 GMT.

7. Rita Manchanda, ‘Naga Women Making a Difference: Peace Building in Northeastern India’, Women Waging Peace Policy Commission, 2005, p. vi.