Women's Leadership in Afghanistan's Reconstruction
by Dr. Massouda Jalal, September 8, 2005
The sole female presidential candidate in Afghanistan's 2004 elections, Dr. Massouda Jalal, currently serves as Afghanistan's Minister for Women's Affairs where she is responsible for mainstreaming gender concerns.
This is a transcript of the speech Minister Jalal delivered on September 8, 2005, in New York for the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders at Asia Society on Women's Leadership in Afghanistan's Reconstruction.
Very distinguished guests and participants to this conference, members of Citigroup, supporters of the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, sisters, brothers and friends
I bring to you all the best wishes of my government and people. Let me also convey to you our very profound gratitude for putting Afghanistan at the center of your agenda and priorities. It is such an honor and privilege for me to address such a distinguished gathering of brilliant and respected economists, social activists, gender advocates, and defenders of peace and human rights.
We Have Set Basic Foundations In Place
It has been more than three years since two and a half decades of nightmarish darkness ended in my country. The reinstitution of the rule of law, and the influx of numerous economic, social and political opportunities have ignited a fresh surge of optimism among our people. A great majority started rebuilding their lives, embraced peace, and pinned their hope to a better tomorrow. At present, a few of our people have actually started to benefit from the opportunities created by the restoration of peace and reconstruction. Notwithstanding a few setbacks, my country is certainly on its way to recovery.
But a lot of challenges remain, and even the fundamental gains are still fragile and untenable at this point in time. Our democratic institutions continue to be challenged by resistance from various sectors that used to benefit from lawlessness. Our governance mechanisms are in place but capacities and structures remain in the formative stage. The Constitution, Shariah and international treaties, which comprise our basic policy frameworks, have all been instituted. But they contain serious substantive inconsistencies, which hamper their implementation and usefulness to protect the rights of the vulnerable. We have civil society organizations that have been partnering with the State in addressing vital issues, including the promotion of people's participation and facilitating the delivery of programs and services. But they do not have enough resources, and the concept of accountability remains nebulous and elusive.
Where Are The Women In All Of This?
Where do the women of my country stand in all of this? Women are not lost in the labyrinth of our country's quest for peace and progress. From the very beginning, our peace and reconstruction agenda has been framed with an explicit commitment to promote the status of women.
The past three years witnessed the adoption of gender equality and pro-women policies in the peace and reconstruction frameworks. We have, among others, Article 22 of the Constitution, which guarantees non-discrimination and equality of women and men. Gender mainstreaming and commitment to women's participation are in the Bonn Agreement and were subsequently picked up in the national development framework and The Way Ahead: Work Plan of Afghanistan Government that was adopted in the Berlin Conference of 2004. In addition, we have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and have adopted the Beijing Platform for Action as guiding framework in analyzing women's issues and developing measures to address them.
Institutional mechanisms to translate these policies into action were also set in place. The Office of the State Minister, the women's department of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and the gender units in a number of ministries are among the mechanisms that are in place.
More importantly, the Ministry of Women's Affairs, which I have the privilege of heading at present, was created in late 2001. The concept of this national women's machinery as lead ministry for the promotion of women's advancement is one of the first and most significant moves of the government to recognize the need for women's leadership in nation building.
Challenges And Options
But to me, leadership of women is not just a matter of mandate. Women's leadership has to be bought with a clear vision, fired by commitment, nourished by credibility, galvanized by performance, and cradled incessantly in the bosom of power. It should stand in the bedrock of a politicized constituency, and a platform of results that would benefit not only women, but everyone in society.
Leadership of women in the reconstruction process is still a distant reality, and the road is paved with daunting obstacles. First, women's human resource has been severely destroyed during the long years of armed conflict. Right now, an overwhelming majority of them are illiterate. Their average life expectancy is only 44 years, just a little bit above half the lifespan of women in other countries. Maternal mortality is so high that before I finish this speech, one woman would have died while giving birth. Yes, statistics show that maternal death occurs every 27 minutes in my country. And the highest maternal mortality rate in the world can be found in one of our provinces. If we have to promote women's leadership, we need to invest massively in women's literacy because they are half of the adult citizens who are in the position to create the tide of change. And we cannot reasonably talk to them about leadership while we know that one woman dies every 27 minutes. Life-saving measures in reproductive health are a matter of extreme emergency.
Second, women are in dire state of powerlessness. There is absolutely nothing that they can do without the support of the men. They cannot even attend literacy classes or get maternal health services if men in the family prohibit them from doing so. In the home, husbands, fathers, brothers and male in-laws control their life. At work, they are disempowered by male superiors and the male-oriented structures and norms of the institutions. In the public space, they are controlled by harassment and threats to personal security. If leadership is about power, women need to have power. But men, in general, are not about to give it up so easily. They say that the best way to win a war is not by defeating your enemies, but by winning them to your side. We, therefore, need to bring together men who can influence other men. We need to actively work out strategies so that they could effectively dialogue with the male population. We need to systematically bring together men in government and make them understand that they have an obligation to help government implement its Constitutional promise of equality between women and men. We need a men's movement for gender equality. And we need it now.
But again, dealing with men is not enough. While we are negotiating power sharing with them, we need to invest on developing women's leadership capacities so that they can demonstrate how women's leadership could make a difference. Women need to come together in sisterhood and solidarity, and articulate a vision in which others could buy-in and lay their stakes. They need to develop an alternative concept of power, the kind of power that does not oppress, control, dominate, violate others' rights, or use force or violence. A kind of power that is liberating, a kind of power that is used for the betterment of the majority. We need to make women assertive, but not threatening. We need to help them gain power, without being disempowering. We need a leadership institute for women. And we need it now.
Third, there are a few Afghan women who are now holding leadership positions. But where are they? Some of them are still abroad, some are holding technical positions in government, in the business and industry sector, or running for parliamentary posts. They are fighting a lonely battle for leadership, and most of the time, they are losing. This is what is happening now with the Priority Reform and Restructuring program of government. Even if the minimum qualifying score for women has been lowered, there are very few women who apply for government positions and still fewer are able to even come close to the minimum qualifying benchmark. Those women who are already in positions of power have to be deliberately assisted. We need mechanisms to bring them together and draw strength from each other. We need a mechanism to assist them in making difficult decisions or carrying out difficult assignments. They need a source of nourishment. They need a source of energy when they are lost in the dark and are running out of strength. We need a technical assistance program for women in leadership positions, and we need it now.
Fourth, empowering women and negotiating with male power-holders are necessary, but not enough. Both women and men live in a male-oriented culture, where subordination and oppression of women is an accepted norm. These are perpetrated by institutions like the family, religion, politics, schools, media and many others. We need a synergized approach to eradicate the beliefs and practices that sustain women's inferior status in the various contexts of their engagement. We have started doing this in government. But whatever little gains we attain are quickly eroded by the very strong cultural forces that dictate peoples' behavior and thinking processes. We need to develop a critical mass of gender champions and advocates in all these institutions. We also need tools and methodologies to promote gender equality ideologies in their work processes and outputs. We need to look at the core messages in education, in media, in religious ceremonies, in political debates and make sure that they offer positive perspectives about women as human beings. We need an effective strategy for cultural change and institutional transformation, and we need it now.
Fifth, we need to rescue women from two invisible forces that shackle them into subordination and powerlessness. One of these is poverty. While majority of our population live in extreme poverty, data shows that women experience the negative impacts of poverty in a more profound way. The result of 2003 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA) shows that women heads of households are one of the most vulnerable groups of the population. The war left us with some 3 million widows who are without skills and economic capital to support themselves and their children. Many of them are landless, homeless and jobless and could be considered as the poorest of the poor. But in addition to them, majority of our women are also poor. We need investments that will create jobs for women, especially in the countryside. We need a human power development plan for women, which will match the labor market demands of the future with the courses being taken up by girls in the universities. Powerlessness is a sister of dependency. By giving jobs to our women, their economic worth in the family would improve and would translate to gradual improvements in their position.
The second shackle that ties our women to powerlessness is violence. Afghanistan is noted for having all the forms of violence that women experience all over the world. But more than these, there are other forms of violence that only Afghan women experience. Bad, or the practice of using women as peace offerings to settle disputes is one of them. Others include self-immolation and trading of girl children for cows or other material things. As you all know, violence is a means of social control. As long as our women live in constant fear of violence, we cannot realize the dream of making them leaders in this process of reconstruction and nation building. We need to liberate them from poverty and violence. And again, we need to do this now.
I can go on and on. There are a lot of areas that require immediate action, and I will never get tired of enumerating them. But I want to stop to give way to your discussion.
Among other things, our government is developing a ten year National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan with the assistance of UNIFEM. This will serve as a textbook of measures that the government will implement together with their partners to address the issues of women in a more organized, systematic, coordinated, and sustained manner. This plan contains the action plans for women of all the 28 ministries of government. Hopefully, it would also help direct the interventions of our international partners towards issues that are most pressing and urgent.
In summary, I have touched on five areas which could spur further thinking and discussion in this meeting and I would like to reiterate them as follows:
Invest in rebuilding of women's human resource; Get the support of men; Develop a new concept of power and train women for leadership; Transform culture and make institutions women-friendly; and Fight poverty and violence.
I know that promoting women's leadership in the rebuilding of Afghanistan is much, much more complex. But we need to begin somewhere. It may still be a distant reality. Nevertheless, we have started to take steps forward. We need to hurdle obstacles, invest in rebuilding women's human resources, and create an enabling environment that would allow women's leadership to grow and bear fruits.
Again, I want to say that I am very grateful to all of you for coming together to discuss a concern that is very close to my heart. Please be assured that I will bring home the insights and recommendations of this workshop and, with your support, do my best to get them translated into concrete actions. Thank you and I wish you a productive discussion.