Women’s Critical Role in Preserving Afghanistan’s Democratic Progress

Afghan women protesters march in Jalalabad to show their support for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. (Photograph by Noorullah Shirzada, AFP via Getty Images.)

The peace negotiations that began in September 2020 between the Afghan government and the Taliban represent a critical moment in the country’s almost four decades of conflict. Civil society organizations are mobilizing across Afghanistan more than ever to defend democratic progress, and to ensure the inclusion of diverse voices at the negotiating table.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) supports 35 organizations in the country—including several women-led organizations, such as the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS); the Afghan Women Coordination and Promotion Organization (AWCPO); Women and Peace Studies Organization (WPSO); Khadija Kubra Women’s Association for Culture; and Afghan Women Unity Organization (AWUO)—that work tirelessly to promote sustainable peace and a democracy representing all of Afghanistan, inclusive of women, youth, minorities, and other marginalized communities.

This new generation of Afghan women finds many reasons for hope: Today’s Afghanistan is home to female politicians, judges, police, and soldiers. Of the 9.3 million students going to school in the country, 39 percent are girls. Better access to internet and smartphones allows civil society organizations to reach women in once-isolated rural areas under Taliban influence, from the Taliban heartland of Kandahar in the south to areas under ISIS influence in eastern Nangarhar and Laghman provinces.

Yet only four women serve on the 21-member team of negotiators for the Afghan government to face the Taliban’s relentless discrimination against women and girls. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s peace talks in the past 15 years have excluded women, according to a new report. Local laws that do exist in Afghanistan to protect women are not always enforced. The contested presidential elections in September 2019—that did not result in a power-sharing agreement until May—also created new power struggles that sideline women.

Declining international support makes the road ahead more difficult; and a sustainable, inclusive peace process with local ownership and accountability takes time. Meanwhile, the Afghan government’s release of Taliban prisoners earlier this year failed to negotiate any concessions in return, such as demands for women’s rights. Taliban attacks and violence have increased since the February 2020 truce, and women civic activists have been among the primary targets.

Despite the many obstacles, NED’s grantees stand out among the many civil society organizations working at this pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s history to protect the democratic achievements already made for women and other marginalized groups, for representation in the negotiations, and to help shape an inclusive democracy for the future.

DROPS organizes a discussion about the latest issue of their women-led foreign policy journal, the first in Afghanistan. (Photograph courtesy of DROPS.)

Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS)

This year, DROPS created the Women’s Peace Circle, which collects women’s voices from across the country on a monthly basis through SMS, face-to-face surveys, and focus groups. The summary of findings are shared as women’s peace briefs for the negotiators, other peacebuilding stakeholders, and on the website for citizens. A recently-formed consortium with the Liaison Office (TLO), another NED grantee seeking to improve local governance and promote pluralism, offers a discussion platform for civil society voices on both sides. DROPS also publishes the first foreign policy journal written by women in Afghanistan—supported by NED—which shares research on key policy issues at the national level, with each article offering concrete recommendations for change. The organization’s policy analysis and development training improves the skills of women and youth for more informed decision-making. The founder and director of DROPS, Mariam Safi has briefed the United Nations on women’s rights, and was the first Afghan woman invited by the North Atlantic Council (NAC) to speak to NATO about the Afghan peace process, and the role of women and marginalized groups.

Afghan Women Coordination and Promotion Organization (AWCPO)

In the eastern Laghman and Nangarhar provinces under Taliban—some of the most dangerous areas in the country under Taliban and ISIS influence—AWCPO advocates for the rights of women and girls under Afghan laws. The organization, led by director Shukria Jalalzai, works closely with other civil society actors to include women’s participation in the peace process, and holds workshops for women—training them for key policy positions and other vocations for a sustainable income. Promoting pluralism, AWCPO also combats extremist narratives and trends in eastern Afghanistan, including attempts to radicalize and recruit women by ISIS.

Women and Peace Studies Organization (WPSO)

WPSO is the first Afghan independent civil society organization that monitors the activities of the parliament in an effort to enhance accountability and transparency. The organization is widely regarded as an impartial and credible source of analysis on parliamentary activities, published in monthly, quarterly, and annual reports. WPSO then organizes informed discussions with civil society organizations, politicians and policymakers, media, and universities to enhance public awareness and oversight. As a result of WPSO’s reporting on the performance and interaction of MPs with their constituents, 36 more MPs prepared an annual report in 2018 recounting their activities throughout the year to address their constituents’ concerns. Wazhma Frogh, the co-founder of the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Afghanistan, is also a member of the Afghan Women’s Network, which advocates for women’s inclusion in the peace process.

Khadija Kubra Women’s Association for Culture (KKWAC)

With NED support, KKWAC runs a women-led radio station in southern Kandahar province to empower youth and train women journalists to investigate and report on sensitive issues of gender, human rights, and the rule of law. Radio Merman (Woman Radio) provides independent news and media content that promotes democratic ideas and values for the citizens of southern Afghanistan. In 2012, Maryam Durrani, KKWAC’s founding director, received the U.S. State Department’s prestigious International Women of Courage award. KKWAC’s advocacy for women in the conservative south has been featured in many international publications, including the New York Times and Reuters in recent months.

Afghan Women Unity Organization (AWUO)

AWUO promotes women’s rights in the rural districts of western Herat province, which border Iran. The organization provides free legal assistance and counsel to victims of gender-based violence; they also hold a public forum on women’s conditions and their rights to engage local officials, lawyers, religious leaders, and civic activists. AWUO’s director, Maria Bashir, previously served as Afghanistan’s first female chief prosecutor. She is also a winner of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage award.

Read more about NED’s work to support democracy in Afghanistan.