Afghanistan currently sits on the cusp of what has been termed the ‘transformation decade’, and nothing is more important for the National Unity Government (NUG) and its international partners than preserving and building on the gains of the past decade.
Since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, the country has made rapid strides. School enrollment among both boys and girls has now reached more than 6 million; economic opportunities have significantly expanded; women have emerged out of obscurity and embraced change; and many efforts have been made to combat corruption, eliminate poverty and end gender-based violence.
While these developments are heartening, many challenges continue to persist. The new government in Kabul faces a monumental task of preserving the achievements and confronting the existing challenges.
One of the formidable challenges is to enhance gender equality and empower women in Afghanistan, which has been emphatically underscored by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as one of their top priorities.
To support the Afghan government in this endeavor, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently announced the largest women’s empowerment program, aimed at advancing opportunities for Afghan women to become the leaders of tomorrow.
A total of 216 million USD has been allocated under this ambitious program called PROMOTE that will be spent in training 75,000 Afghan women between the age group of 18 and 30 in the fields of entrepreneurship, government and leadership.
The program aims to support women’s advocacy groups, encourage women’s participation in business activities, increase the number of women in decision-making positions, and help young Afghan women acquire leadership skills.
At the much-publicized launch of the program in October last year, USAID officials reaffirmed the U.S. government’s long-term support for Afghan women and girls.
“Enormous progress has been made in advancing opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan over the past 11 years,” said Rajiv Shah, former USAID administrator. “While there are challenges ahead, Promote underscores our commitment to ensuring that women and girls play a major role in determining Afghanistan's political and economic future.”
The largest women’s empowerment program
Promote, which is the largest women’s empowerment program in the history of USAID, aims to empower young Afghan women with necessary skills, experience and knowledge to excel in various fields of endeavor.
The idea of Promote, according to Peter Duffy, USAID Afghanistan deputy mission director, came from a comprehensive study of what the country has achieved over the past 12 years.
“With almost 200,000 women graduating from the high school and lot of programs and systems put in place to improve the opportunities for women, we discussed how we can support these women and propel them into the positions of power and authority,” Mr. Duffy told Afghan Zariza in an interview.
Over the next decade, as the country becomes economically self-reliant and less dependent on foreign donors, the aim of this project is to ensure women are more prominent in that process.
“The idea is to ensure that the progress made is irreversible and the skills women acquire are turned into a force that can influence policy making,” says Mr. Duffy.
The primary focus of this ambitious program is essentially on the young women. The cohort group of women in the age group of 18 to 30 is divided into two sub groups: primary group comprises women with high school education and secondary group is called pre-urban that goes beyond the cities.
“The project is primarily aimed at the cohort of women between the age group of 18 and 30, and it is more than just training,” Mr. Duffy said.
The program will be conducted in Balkh, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul and Nangarhar and is likely to be extended to other regional hubs as well.
Mr. Duffy says when the project was first designed about two years ago; the focus was mainly on the cohort of women in these regional hubs but they are now also focusing on rural areas.
“Since we formally launched this program in October last year, we received lot of messages from people that we need to do more in rural areas,” he says. “So we have made quite a few changes to it and we are open to feedback from civil society organizations and media.”
To make sure the women in rural areas benefit from this program, some large scholarship components have been introduced that will allow women from rural areas get university education.
Further, two programs have been added for second tier beneficiaries who are not necessarily in cities but might benefit from myriad business opportunities.
Fazel Rahim, gender specialist with the office of program and project implementation (OPPD) of USAID, stresses that there is no “qualifying factor” for women to benefit from Promote.
“All the women from across the country can avail the benefits of this program but the resources will be available in the regional hubs,” says Mr. Rahim. “Once we provide enabling resources to the cohort group of women in these regional hubs, they can go all the way and help their sisters and do advocacy on their behalf.”
Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament from Badakhshan, recently said the success of this program will be determined by its reach and whether it benefits women in far-flung districts and villages.
Mr. Duffy, however, does not agree with Ms. Koofi that the success of Promote depends on its reach.
“On the basis of feedback, we have made quite a few changes to the project since its launch and expanded it significantly but we certainly won’t be able to reach every village,” he says.
Meanwhile, the project has brought a big cheer to young and educated women in Afghanistan, who see it as a new chapter and a new beginning.
“It is indeed a path-breaking initiative that can positively impact the status of women in this country,” says Freshta Karim, a Kabul-based writer and activist. “I just hope the implementing agencies ensure transparency in the project because stakes are quite high.”
Staggering investment and the issue of transparency
The biggest and the most ominous threat to Afghanistan today does not come from terrorism or extremism, but from corruption. The country has consistently slipped in the Transparency International (TI) Index.
With the staggering sum of 216 million USD investment; there are concerns about the way money will be spent and how the implementing agencies will ensure transparency in the project.
Mr. Duffy says the high-profile public launch of the project late last year, which was also attended by President Ghani, has already created lot of eyes on them.
“We have been very open about what this program is and the aim is to show people we are committed to ensure transparency and welcome feedback,” he says.
“We have very robust monitoring processes in the mission and we will be using third party monitors to go out and make sure things are happening; we also have put in place our normal financial oversight processes; we will also have a committee of government officials and civil society members that will look at monitoring data to see what is going right and wrong,” adds Mr. Duffy.
Besides a senior advisory committee at the higher level, there would also be technical advisory committees under each component of the project, says Mr. Rahim. These committees would be looking into the technical aspects of the project.
At the provincial level, the ministries of women’s affairs and education would be engaged to select the beneficiaries of the project, depending on the nature of each component.
“USAID will also be involving local celebrities to raise awareness about the project. Every single Afghan must know about the project and the opportunities it offers them,” says Mr. Rahim.
Other international donors are also supposed to contribute an additional 200 million USD to help expand the program, but the details are not clear yet.
The idea, according to Mr. Duffy, was to create a room for other interested donors to participate in this project without creating other parallel programs.
“But, as of now, we don’t have any additional donors,” he says.
Political participation and decision-making process
One of the main goals of this program is to increase the political participation of women and ensure they are represented at the highest levels of policy and decision-making in Afghan government.
This component called ‘Women in Leadership’ seeks to facilitate women’s entry into government service, encourage policy reform within the government; increase support for women in government; establish an internship and fellowship program for female students who intend to work with ministries.
“This component of the program will essentially help women in Afghanistan become leaders and torchbearers,” says Dr. Latifa Majidi, gender specialist with the office of program and project implementation (OPPD) of USAID.
“We intend to help women in civil society organizations present themselves better before people with proper documentation and convincing plans; we also intend to help women in government departments by developing their capacity so that they can rise to higher positions,” says Dr. Majidi.
As part of this component of the program, the fresh female graduates would receive help in getting entry into government ministries and departments through internships.
“We will be working closely with those ministries to make sure they have the right system and culture for women to move up,” says Mr. Duffy. “We have had several government agencies and ministries come to us and say they have identified women leaders who are ready to assume bigger responsibilities but lack accounting or communication skills, so we are responding to those requests.”
As part of this component, the leadership training programs will be conducted for 25000 women across the country in various fields.
“Afghanistan needs leaders, not only in the government sector but also in other important sectors,” says Mr. Rahim. “So, we will have a group of highly motivated Afghan women with the potential to become leaders and this program will give them the enabling resources, which are defined by them and the market.”
The Oslo symposium on ‘Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan’ in December last year underscored the importance of women’s participation in political affairs and decision-making.
The recommendations made by the representatives of Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) included increased participation of women in political affairs, developing a quota system for elections that ensures women’s adequate representation at all levels of government and increasing the quota for parliament.
Speaking at a function in Kabul to mark the International Women’s Day on March 8, President Ghani said the government is committed to fulfilling the promises made prior to elections.
“We shall honor our commitments and we have the political will to do that,” President Ghani said. “We are committed to safeguard achievements made during President Hamid Karzai's tenure.”
Economic and business opportunities
Another important component of the project, which has not been awarded yet, is to boost female participation in the economy and help women across the country gain business and management skills.
More than 3,500 small businesses would be created under this component to bolster domestic growth.
“It is expected to be awarded soon so we are still not sure about the final composition,” says Mr. Duffy.
“But the things we would normally expect to see in this component include helping women start business in terms of technical skills and access to finance, helping women expand their businesses by connecting them to markets, helping them enter into public-private partnerships and make business deals, and organizing training workshops on business and technical aspects.”
At the request of Afghan government, USAID is also looking at the possibility of branding products as ‘made in Afghanistan’ that could be used to propel more women-made products from Afghanistan into international markets.
Dr. Majidi, who is also a successful business entrepreneur, says this component of Promote will help Afghan women facilities to expand their business from small to big enterprises.
President Ghani had recently urged USAID to help promote products made by Afghan women and explore international markets for them.
“It is very much part of the plan,” says Mr. Duffy.
Educational opportunities and scholarships
The project also includes creation of an institute for gender and development studies and an international scholarship program for Afghan women, which President Ghani has also spoken about.
Mr. Duffy says the feedback they got after the launch suggested that the international scholarship was not a priority for a lot of people and the impact would not be so significant.
“There are a lot of similar programs, and many families are reluctant to send their daughters abroad,” says Mr. Duffy. “So the scholarship program was largely redesigned based on that feedback; it is moving forward and would predominantly be to universities in Afghanistan.”
USAID is currently in the process of selecting an international NGO for the implementation of this component and by the end of second year a local NGO will take over.
The NGO will identify 10 universities in Afghanistan this summer for the scholarship recipients and the majority of scholarships right now will be for Afghan universities.
It also includes helping students prepare for Kankor, college entrance exam, examination and get into universities in coordination with the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE).
The scholarships would be provided to students in both public and private universities, but the majority of funding would be for scholarships in private universities, says Mr. Duffy.
The plan about the institute for gender and development studies has been put on hold, and the focus has shifted towards having a women’s university in Afghanistan.
President Ghani, speaking at the launch of Promote late last year, said the first women’s university will be built in Afghanistan with the assistance of international community.
Mr. Duffy says they are working with the government to better understand what plans they have for this university and also if other regional donors are interested in that project.
U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced increase in the number of Fulbright fellowships to qualified Afghan students by 50 percent for the next five years, making it one of the largest Fulbright programs in the world.
In addition, President Obama also announced the establishment of an 18 million USD USAID scholarship program to support women attending universities throughout Afghanistan.
“The best part about Promote is scholarships for students, but I am more interested in knowing how the universities and the scholarship recipients would be identified,” says Fariba Azarakhsh, student at Kabul University. “I hope the selection of students is solely based on merit.”
Civil society and women’s rights groups
Supporting civil society organizations and women’s rights groups in Afghanistan is also one of the key components of Promote, which has received great deal of attention.
When the project was being designed, Mr. Duffy recalls, USAID received criticism for spending a lot of money on women’s NGOs to lobby for various things across the country.
“There were lot of small successes but we had not really managed to create a national movement or national platform for women, so that criticism influenced our work under Promote,” says Mr. Duffy.
Under Promote, women’s NGOs would work to promote and protect women’s rights in each province but before that they would come together to develop a common national platform of three or four priorities they will advocate for.
“The idea is to encourage them to come together as this coalition, at least one from each province, and develop this national platform and then USAID’s funds that would go to these groups would be used to carry out nationwide campaigns to advance those causes,” says Mr. Duffy.
Mr. Rahim says this component will help the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan by bringing together civil society organizations in various parts of the country.
“What we will do is facilitate the process so that they all come under one umbrella and sisterhood becomes powerful,” says Mr. Rahim.
In a report published recently, Amnesty International (AI) said that women’s rights activists in Afghanistan who encounter various forms of violence are being abandoned by the government.
The report titled ‘Their Lives On The Line’ documents in detail various forms of violence and abuse faced by doctors, teachers, lawyers, journalists, and activists in Afghanistan who fight for women’s rights.
According to the report, they have been targeted not just by the armed opposition groups but by warlords and government officials as well.
“The odds are heavy but women in this country are determined to reclaim their space in society and fight for their rights,” says Samira Hamidi, former director of Afghan Women’s Network (AWN). “It’s not the men’s world anymore, we are all equals.”
Future perfect for Afghan women?
Mr. Duffy is confident that things would be different five years down the line in terms of women’s rights and women’s empowerment in Afghanistan.
“I was in Herat recently, and one of our team members there said he spent the weekend walking in a park where he also saw a lot of women, which was unimaginable five years ago,” says Mr. Duffy. “It is not about USAID, but the fact is things are improving. I am positive that things would get much better for women in next five years.”
The status of women in Afghanistan, Mr. Rahim notes, has significantly changed and there is ample evidence to prove that.
“It is not based on assumptions, the progress is visible,” says Mr. Rahim. “However, there is a long road ahead and what Promote can do is help in preserving the gains made over the past 12 years and help Afghan women move to the next level during this decade of transformation”.
The people in Afghanistan, he says, are now at the forefront of advocacy because they know their rights and how to claim those rights.
“Gone are the days when people in this country would expect others to speak for them, they can now speak for themselves,” says Mr. Rahim. “There is no looking back now.”