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PARSA Afghanistan

By Marnie Gustavson
Executive Director

November 2015, I sit with my psychosocial trainer Fatema and eight Afghan women leaders from Zardozi Women’s Business Centers to launch our women’s peer counseling group that we call “Healthy Afghan Woman’s Support Group”. In my experience, announcing a program as a psychosocial one can be the “kiss of death” for women’s support groups in Afghanistan – unless there is a heavy stipend offered for attending. Even though I had oriented them to our work a couple weeks back and assured all attending that this was not a program for crazy people, my attendees were very nervous about working with me.

Afghan women are some of the most socially oppressed women in the world, living in a culture that condones violence against them, but the experience of sitting and talking with Afghan women never fails to amuse, endear and inspire me. After twelve years of close work with Afghan women from the mountains to the fields to the Afghan parliament, I must say that the perception that they are “put upon” victims is not how I experience Afghan women as a whole and this group was no exception. They welcomed me graciously, strongly stated their opinions and fears about our training, and settled in to learn. Only two of the women were literate, although all of them were responsible as community leaders for a group of women artisans working in the business centers.

“The work of a women’s group facilitator is a very special kind of work,” I announce. “When women gather to talk, the conversation tends to be what I call “tea time talk” where we share stories about how hard life is in Afghanistan, how we have been hurt by men, about all that is wrong with our lives. There is a certain comfort in sharing these things, but women can leave these conversations feeling very sad about their lives and feeling helpless. In our work with you this week, you have an opportunity to learn how to lead women’s conversations where the women talk about how to solve their own problems and when they leave your group they feel like they have a path forward and support to do so.”

Zarghuna comments, “We like hearing sad stories from others. It makes us not feel so alone!”

“Well, Zarghuna, you can always have that kind of a conversation but in this program it is saved for “tea time”, I say. “Here we want to assist the women in your centers to solve their problems, seek support, and make changes in their lives so they are healthier. I think everyone here wants that for themselves and other Afghan women. What kinds of challenges do you and your sisters face everyday?”

Aisha: “I am a widow and my teenage son won’t allow my daughter to go to school. He won’t listen to me.”
Hawa: “My husband did not want me to come to this training. He says that women are not important, and certainly not as important as men. I had to fight with him to come here. I always am fighting with my husband.”
Khadija: “There is a woman in my group who works very hard and produces good products but her family will not let her keep the money or spend the money on her children. So she is always hungry and always trying to beg for food for her children. It isn’t fair.”
Homa: “There is a woman in my center whose daughter was raped by a neighbor but the police sided with him.”

“As a facilitator, you will have the tools of listening, problem solving, advocacy, and mobilizing your beneficiaries,” I continue, “And again, a special kind of listening, where instead of finding stories in your lives to match the stories being told so you commiserate, you will act as a mirror and reflect back what you hear so your speaker feels heard.”

With these simple but difficult-to-practice concepts, my mostly illiterate group of women set out to learn how to facilitate by working with problems they were struggling with in their own lives or problems that other women in their communities were having. By our second day, they were practicing facilitating a group and during the problem-solving period coming up with solutions I never could have thought of because I do not live their lives. Competent, smart, and savvy about their communities and their constituents, I felt like I was witnessing a high-powered convention of Afghan women elders who were capably organizing themselves to address heart-breaking problems with vigor and determination.

As we start to get them ready to start their own support groups I ask them, “Now since most of you are illiterate, how do I give you materials so you remember the steps of facilitating a support group?”

Zarghuna answers, “Phfft! We have to do this all of the time! We have memorized the steps but give us materials anyway and if we forget we will have our children read them to us.”

Finally, I ask them what they feel was is valuable from our training. “Marnie,” Hawa says, “ It is such a relief to direct complaining to tea time, and to feel powerful enough to say Shut Up! It is time for solutions.”

I have lived and worked in Afghanistan for many years but it is my direct – up close and personal work with ordinary Afghans that continues to give me hope for Afghanistan. My experience of Afghan women, such as the ones in this training, astonishes and never fails to delight me. Against the backdrop of the hand wringing and anxiety of international leaders about the future as reported by the media, I am constantly heartened by the pride and resilience of Afghan women. I long for a more compassionate society, for their rights to be upheld by the government and for their lives to be safer but working with them I know that they are strong. It is a privilege to witness them as they grow and move forward, rebuilding their families and communities.

Names of the participants have been changed

The country’s first Afghan woman-led organization focused on women, peace & security

The country’s first Afghan woman-led organization focused on women, peace & security. Research Institute for Women Peace & Security (RIWPS) , established in 2012 by Wazhma Frogh & Sabrina Saqeb

“If Afghan women are supported and stood with, they will be able to institutionalize and make these changes more sustainable in the decade of transformation, in the next 10 years.” – Ms. Frogh

RIWPS is working closely with the High Peace Council focusing on women’s meaningful participation in the peace process as well as with local organizations and activists building community-based inclusive peace.

Research Institute for Women Peace & Security (RIWPS) is a woman-led initiative that focuses on increasing women’s leadership and inclusion in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan through research and evidence building and also strengthening the advocacy campaigns carried out many other women organizations.
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Jamila Akbarzai, a leader and a changer maker:

Jamila Akbarzai was encouraged by her father to obtain a good education, like a number of other Afghan women leaders in civil society.

Jamila remarks: “My father was a successful businessman. He encouraged me to get a good education, along with my six brothers. I am very grateful of my both parents and I want other Afghan women to have that chance.”

Jamila earned a B.Sc. from Kabul University and worked at the International Rescue Committee in Pashawar Pakistan. Jamila was driven by a desire to empower women to gain economic self-Sufficiency. In 1989, Jamila established one of the first local Afghan Women-led nonprofits: Afghan Women’s Welfare Department (AWWD).

Jamila reflects: “We as a women’s organization will keep trying until we bring Afghan women into decision-making positions. So far, women and men in our society have different power in decision-making. We want to change the situation …. I believe that any initiative and efforts without the participation and active role of women in Afghanistan will never lead to success.”
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Young Women for Change (YWC)

Young Women for Change (YWC) is the first young women’s movement NGO, established in 2011 by two young college students, Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary.

YWC is an independent non-profit organization formed by dozens of volunteer women and men advocates across Afghanistan who are dedicated to empowering Afghan women and improving their lives through social and economical participation. YWC focuses on political empowerment, advocacy, training, and community involvement.

YWC’s vision is to promote gender equality, empower women and increase Afghan women’s social participation.

Anita reflects that:“the current context of Afghanistan is very unstable and economically dependent,” with a lack of rule of law and “lack of governmental interest in the inclusion of women in the sustainability and transaction process.”
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Educating the next generation of Afghans: The story of an ambitious Andeisha

By Mariam Jalalzada

Andeisha, like many, is concerned about the faith of the country in the years to come, especially, the year 2014 when the international troops will withdraw from the country. However, she believes that “the generation of Afghans who were victims of the atrocities of the Mujahedin and the Taliban regime will not remain silent. They will raise their voice and will not easily give up on the gains made in the areas of human rights, rule of law, and economic development.”

The pessimism around 2014 has not yet deterred Andeisha’s commitment and ambitions for a better Afghansitan. AFCECO is fully committed in continuing educating a young and vibrant generation of Afghans. “We will continue to move forward and increase our enrollment and are very optimist and hopeful that the new and educated generation of Afghans will not allow for the events of a not-so distant terrible past to be repeated.”

Since the ousting of the Taliban government in 2001, many Afghan expatriates have returned to their homeland in the hope to contribute to the development of the nation. Some have joined governmental and non-governmental organizations, while others have started their own businesses and developmental organizations. Andeisha Farid, was one of these returnees who returned from Pakistan with big ambitions: to educate the new generation of Afghanistan by providing high quality learning opportunities for children from all kinds of backgrounds—children without parents and those who have parents yet cannot afford to go to school because of extreme poverty.
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Malala Yousafzai addresses United Nations Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday, July 12, 2013

Here is a video link to an address of astounding power, maturity, dignity and pure inspiration, from Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani teenager who was shot point blank in the head by the Taliban last year for advocating education for girls. But she survived, enduring long hospitalizations and reconstructive operations in Pakistan and Great Britain, where she now lives with her family. She celebrated her 16th birthday on July 12th in a stellar way— by giving this extraordinary address at the UN Youth Assembly to dignitaries and over 500 youth activist from around the world, calling for universal education as a key to a better future.

Gordon Brown, the U.N.’s special envoy for education, helped bring her to New York for this address. She stood there, diminutive, calm and strong, wearing a shawl once owned by Benazir Bhutto, and thanked all the thousands who sent love and good wishes, her doctors, nurses and staff, and all those who have supported her recovery and ongoing advocacy for equality and education.
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Presence and Persuasion: Women’s Communication for Political, Economic and Personal Empowerment

By Marissa Moran, Albany Associates

I recently attended a conference where the word “empowerment” was thrashed about in search of a definition. Western aid agencies like to think they can “empower” women by giving them the necessary tools and services to build a future for themselves, but sometimes it’s even simpler than that.

Different women, from Afghanistan to Libya to America, have different ideas of how they can become empowered in their specific circumstances, from the micro level of personal relationships to the macro platform of political participation. The solution to the empowerment debate lies in local affairs, but no matter the context, communication and the ability to present oneself in a way that makes others listen is key.

Verbal, written, and behavioral communication skills are often considered only for those in leadership positions (maybe that’s how they got there in the first place), but training in these skills should be available to all women in a community supplemented by a network of peers and mentors that allows for easy connections.
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Anita Haidary, A role model, a change-maker and a leader

By Zuhra Abhar

Anita, a young Afghan college student, is the co-founder and the Executive Director of Young Women for Change

Anita says: “I am proud of being an active voice of young women and men in society who believe in change.”

Anita grew up in an open-minded family: her parents played an important role in getting Anita and her four sisters and one brother an education. During the war in 1997, Anita and her family fled to Pakistan. In 2002, Anita and her family returned to Afghanistan with hope for a better future.

As a young girl, Anita always hoped that one day the voice of Afghan women could be heard and they would have equality and rights. Anita is a leader and a role model for other young Afghan women. In 2008, she graduated from high school and went to American University Central Asia. After six months of hard work and dedication, she was accepted and received a four-year scholarship at Mount Holyoke College. Currently, Anita is in her third year of college. Her passion and dedication encouraged her to become a voice of women in Afghanistan.
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GoodWeave: Weaving Opportunities for Women in Afghanistan

“It is audacious to aspire to end human rights abuses in an unsettled nation, but GoodWeave’s progress in just one year proves to me that where there is a willingness to try, much can be accomplished.” – Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, And the Mountains Echoed, and A Thousand Splendid Suns

GoodWeave International works to end child labor and trafficking in the rug industry and to support weaving communities around the world. Building on its nearly 20 years of experience in India and Nepal, GoodWeave expanded to Afghanistan in 2011. Many people said GoodWeave couldn’t succeed in this war-torn country. Today, GoodWeave is proving them wrong, and the very first certified Afghan rug reached the market last winter.

The journey of that rug was not easy – it took building faith in communities that have seen too many short-range development projects. It took adapting GoodWeave’s best-in-class supply chain monitoring program to reach women weavers hidden on home-based looms. And it took delicate, even dangerous, negotiation to ensure that girls found working would have the chance to learn.
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Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL)

By Zuhra Abhar

Ms. Sakena Yacoobi, Founder & Executive Director
Afghan Institute of Learning (
Established in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1995

AIL’s top priorities are providing quality education and healthcare to all who seek it, quality training, including capacity building, leadership and human rights workshops, teacher training and health workshops, reviving the arts and culture of Afghanistan, and teaching about peace and forgiveness.

Afghan Women Leaders Connect has supported AIL’s work since 2002, when at that time the young organization was opening an office in Kabul and converting offices in Herat and Jalalabad into formal presences, no longer subject to a Taliban ban. Since then, Connect has supported a myriad of AIL’s programs for several years across Afghanistan, including teacher training, a preschool, fast track classes to mainstream older girls who had lost years of schooling under Taliban restrictions, literacy classes, health clinics and skills training programs for self-employment.
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