Global Hotspots

Updates and analysis about issues affecting women survivors of war in the countries where we operate.

The World's Five Most Dangerous Countries for Women

Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo both top the list of the most dangerous countries for women in 2011, according to TrustLaw Women's expert poll. Citing the factors of sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, discrimination and lack of resources and trafficking, experts determined that Afghanistan and DRC, along with Pakistan, India and Somalia, are the worst countries in the world to be a woman.

Afghanistan in particular has especially signifcant problems with health, non-sexual violence and discrimination. According to TrustLaw, 87% of Afghan women are illiterate and 70-80% faced forced marriage. These factors, combined with the violence against women and high health risks make it the most dangerous country for women in 2011.


The DRC, which ranked second on the list of the worst places to be a woman, has a myriad of issues and threats to the safety and security of women, however, the rate of rape and sexual violence was the deciding factor in the rankings. According to a recent report, 1,152 women are raped every day in the Congo. This disturbingly high number, along with the lack of health care and inequality, is cited as the reason why the DRC is ranked second in the TrustLaw poll.

TrustLaw Danger Poll

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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Failure to Protect: Enduring Challenges for Peacekeeping in the DRC

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

Today, July 1st, 2011, marks the anniversary of and another year's mandate for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the world's largest peacekeeping force. Recently, the UN Security council extended the force's mandate until at least June 2012, citing the continuing need to protect civilians. This is an important development, given previous suggestions by the Congolese Government that the mandate might not be renewed despite continuing attacks on civilians throughout the country's conflict-ridden eastern regions. The mission now operates under one of the most forceful mandates in history, which powerfully instructs peacekeepers to use "all necessary means to carry out its protection mandate."

The mission was launched in response to the Second Congolese War, which was catalyzed by a massive exodus from Rwanda following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In what has been called "Africa's World War," the Second Congolese War involved over five nations in the Sub-Saharan region. Estimates hold that over 5.4 million lives were lost, with 2 million still displaced and hundreds of thousands of rapes associated with the fighting. It was this grim backdrop that catalyzed UN intervention.

As in many states, the formal peace agreement that was signed between the five warring nations in 1999 has not brought true peace -- especially for women. Despite the presence of peacekeepers since that time (then called MONUC), targeted attacks on civilians have continued. According to a recent TrustLaw expert poll, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a woman, due to the high rates of sexual violence. A recent analysis of data collected in 2007 suggests that 400,000 women are raped every year in the Congo --almost one rape per minute. And as recently as last week, more than 170 women were raped by former members of the Congolese army in Fizi town. Although attacks lasted for two days, peacekeepers did not hear of it until many days later. This is yet another chilling reminder of how far we have to go before promises to protect women in Congo are truly kept.

Reflecting upon this tragic incident, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, welcomed the extension on MONUSCO with measured words: "Given the significant security challenges that remain in the country, it is crucial that the United Nations have a continued peacekeeping presence in the Congo. The recent mass rapes in Fizi in South Kivu highlight that Congo's women are particularly vulnerable."

To be sure, the force has been involved with a number of activities designed to improve human security in the East. Peacekeepers have helped set up information panels about HIV/ AIDS, created a "Trading Centers" program to combat illegal mining , and worked to create a more effective communication network so villages in need can contact peacekeepers. They are involved with preparations for November's upcoming elections, working to disarm armed combatants (with a special emphasis on children), and helping train Congolese police (which is generally agreed to be incapable of protecting the population, and members of which are often implicated in direct attacks upon civilians).

Although MONUSCO is making strides in the Congo, and is certainly an essential if imperfect actor in the quest to secure peace and human security in the country, it has failed in the most fundamental part of its mission: the protection of civilians. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is by many accounts considered to be a failed state, one that cannot protect its own people. Until the day that it is able to do so completely and credibly, the international community must shoulder that responsibility. The lives and dignity of Congo's innocent civilians depend upon it.

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Recent Analysis Suggests Rate of Sexual Violence in the Congo 26 Times Higher than Previously Thought

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been racked by violent conflict for the past fifteen years, destroying the country's social fabric, particularly in the East. As in all wars, it has been the women that have suffered most. Rape and sexual violence occur at disturbingly high rates; the United Nations called the DRC the "rape capital of the world."

Most of this violence against women has been associated with the strategic use of rape as a tool of war -- and hence assumed to be heavily concentrated in the eastern regions where fighting continues to this day. However, a recent analysis of a 2007 nation-wide health survey shows a different picture. According to the study, rape is 26 times more common than previously thought. Everyday, 1,150 women are raped. That is 48 women every hour. Almost 1 rape every minute.

The most surprising statistic it reveals is that rape is no longer exclusively a weapon of war -- rather, it has become a part of everyday life across the country. According to the recent study, 22.5% of rapes in the DRC are committed by intimate partners, not armed fighters.

Expert commentary reviewing the study's findings has emphasized the lack of capacity of the Congolese state to protect its people as a key obstacle to stopping the violence. Impunity reigns, and to the extent that war militarizes sexual relations and normalizes violence in the context of a state unable to hold these crimes to account, there can be no real progress. Although national leaders say they have a "zero-tolerance policy" for sexual violence, there is no way they can enforce any policy without a sustainable justice system. There is no viable means to enforce judgments, with a police force that is still largely unprofessional and often the direct cause of violence and widespread bribery by perpetrators to reduce or avoid sentences. Reparations for survivors also go unpaid.

It is not enough to tell the Congolese women that there is "zero tolerance" for sexual violence. When there is no system in place to prevent sexual violence or punish offenders, these words ring hollow and untrue. The Congolese government, with its international partners, must redouble its efforts to strengthen and reform the justice and security sectors and effectively combat the epidemic of rape in the Congo.

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Report on the Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC

From September 30 - October 16, a panel of experts convened by the UNHCR traveled around the Democratic Republic of the Congo to hear the stories of victims of the sexual violence that plauges the country. They heard from survivors of the most brutal attacks, from women whose husbands left them because they were "ashamed of them," to those that had been infected with HIV or become pregnant as a result of their attacks. The panel heard the story of women who had been held as sex slaves for six months, as well as the story of a woman who was gang-raped in front of her child. Women explained their frustrations to the panel: their frustrations at the lack of of justice; the lack of peace and security; and the lack of reparations for their assaults. They explained the problems presented by the stigma with which community and family members view rape victims, the difficulties they have faced in bringing their attackers to justice and their continuing struggles to access medical care and other services.

After the panel completed its assessment, it relayed these findings to the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In particular, the panel recommends concerted efforts to increase access to medical care and education for survivors, as well as efforts to combat the social stigma surrounding rape. Among the most important recommendations the panel issued is DRC's urgent need for a justice system with the capacity to enforce the country's "zero tolerance" policy for sexual violence. Finally, the panel recommended payment of reparations to survivors, both for women who are able to identify their attackers and those who are unable to do so.

Ultimately, the most critical need is for peace to be restored in the DRC. Formal peace agreements ring hollow when war is still being waged on women's bodies. In the words of one woman," whatever you give me, if there is no peace it can be destroyed."

Report on the Panel on Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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Congolese Women Speak Out Against Violence—Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: DR Congo Report

November 17, 2010 — Washington, D.C.

Decades of violence and conflict have brought the women of the DR Congo years of displacement, poverty and a brutal campaign of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The recent mass rapes of more than 300 women, children and men in the eastern part of the country is testament to the continuing failure of the international community to protect the women and children in the DR Congo.

In news and policy discussions, we rarely hear about the realities of these women living in war who are struggling daily to put food on the table and send their children to school. More often than not, we focus our efforts at the frontlines of war while neglecting that greater needs exist at the backlines of war. Women for Women International sought to amplify the voices of these women through our Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: DR Congo report. Click here to learn more about our DR Congo report and the current state of Congolese women.

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WfWI-DR Congo Country Director Christina Karumba Briefs State Department Officials

November 17, 2010 — Washington, D.C.

Women for Women International DR Congo Country Director Christine Karumba briefed State Department representatives from the Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration (PRM), the office of Global Women's Issues, the Bureau of African Affairs, Office of the Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and others about our programs in DR Congo and the needs and recommendations of women on the ground, as articulated in our 2010 DR Congo survey and report. Christine made the case for the efficacy of U.S. foreign assistance programs directed through and for women, such as innovative programs like the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (CIFI) and the Men's Leadership Program, which are funded in part by U.S. and multilateral donors.

She also pointed to findings of our DR Congo report linking women's livelihoods to ripple effects improving physical and mental health, nutrition, children's education and well-being and community involvement/civil society development. As the Administration and new Congress look to trim spending and decrease the deficit, findings such as these make the case for sustaining the American commitment to foreign assistance, and increasing the proportions of that spending directed toward women's programs, which have been proven in our experience and a growing body of other research to be more effective and efficient stewards of funds.

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Zainab Salbi Briefs White House Officials on U.S. Engagement Opportunities for Women, Peace and Security

November 17, 2010 — Washington, D.C.

During the week of Washington's celebrations of the 10th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325, the White House hosted a roundtable discussion to hear from women peace-builders around the world on their work and recommendations for implementing UNSCR 1325's three core principles of protection, prevention and participation. The audience included officials from across government who are working together to develop and launch America's newly announced National Action Plan on women, peace and security, including representatives from the Secretary of State's Office on Global Women's Issues; the National Security Council (Samantha Power's deputy and Abigail Freeman, Director for Afghanistan); and Tina Tchen, Executive Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Women peace-builders from around the world, including Pakistan's SWAT territory, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Israel/Palestine and others gave testaments from their field work as to why the full inclusion of women is essential for effective and sustainable peace-building, conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction. Salbi closed with specific recommendations urging the U.S.'s strong leadership leveraging influence and resources to ensure that Afghan women's rights, participation and mobility are not sold down the river in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.

Women for Women International has been and continues to advise the Administration in the development of its commitments under the emerging National Action Plan for the full implementation of UNSCR 1325.

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The Other Tahrir Square: Last Week's Violence Against Women in Baghdad, and What It Means for the World

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

Last week, a group of twenty-five women who were demonstrating for peace and democracy in Baghdad's Tahrir Square were violently attacked. Gathering as they had every week, the women were greeted this time greeted by a mob of armed men who were reportedly bused in specifically to target the demonstrators. The women were physically and sexually attacked, and a 19-year-old woman's clothes were reportedly torn from her body. News of this horrific exchange in Iraq comes on the heels of an Egyptian general's public admission that his forces deliberately employed so-called "virginity tests" to intimidate women in the more famous, Cairo-based Tahrir Square during March's revolution. Around the world, these kinds of deliberate, organized attacks on peaceful female protesters register a worrying trend of diminishing--and increasingly unsafe--public space for women's political participation.

In the first half of 2011 alone, we have seen evidence of this in practically every region of the world. Take Ivory Coast, where a women's protest of former President Gbagbo's refusal to cede power was targeted for attack by government soldiers. Although the women were unarmed and peaceful, the forces opened fire, killing seven women. Days later, on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, men and women gathered to remember the fallen women and add their voices to the peaceful protest; forces loyal to Gbagbo again attacked, killing three men and one woman

In Libya, the world watched in horror as Iman al-Obeidi burst into a hotel room filled with international press to report her rape by government forces targeting civilians in an attempt to terrorize the Libyan people and maintain Muammar al-Qaddafi's grip on power. Obeidi fled the country only to be deported--against international outcry--and has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life. Widespread reports of use of rape and other human rights abuses have been chronicled throughout the Libyan forces.

Nepal's conflict is more distant in time and memory than those of Ivory Coast and the Arab Spring, but women on the ground there who are still organizing to implement the country's peace process and new constitution continue to be marginalized from national debates, and face physical harm for their efforts. In early May, police attacked and beat 21 women who had gathered to peacefully protest in support of the peace process and a new Constitution outside of the Constituent Assembly.

There are a few cases where women have been able to overcome targeted campaigns of violence against them by their own efforts. Cuba's famous Damas en Blanco--wives and mothers of jailed dissidents who walk the streets of Havana clad in white each Sunday to symbolize peace--were also subject to an Iraq-style campaign of violence by men bused in to taunt and psychically attack them. After suffering repeated attacks, the Damas lobbied the Church to intervene on their behalf, and received assurances that they would continue to be able to march for peace, in peace.

The courageous acts of women everywhere who put themselves at risk in the name of peace and justice are foundational to the democratic process, yet often place them at risk by the states they seek to improve. The act of targeting women for violence is neither geographically, ethnically, religiously or racially unique. Rather, it is a consistent, political tool indicative of a calculated effort to quash the democratic process and maintain hold of power through force.

It is also indisputably illegal. International human rights standards expressly protect not only women's bodies from men's arms, but also their rights to participate within their countries' (generally male-dominated) political debates. Yet as 2011 unfolds, we are seeing more and more evidence that our promises that women should be able to help shape the future direction of their societies ring increasingly hollow.

Women should not be martyred for peace, as they were in Ivory Coast; neither should they be responsible for their own security, as in Cuba. How many more Tahrir Squares must we witness before we take action to stop the violence? How many more women will continue to have to fight... for peace?

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CEO and Founder Zainab Salbi discusses the status of women and girls in Iraq on Al Jazeera English

Washington, D.C. - August 14, 2009 — Zainab Salbi, a critically acclaimed author, is the founder of Women for Women International, an organization which helps women in post-conflict zones.

As an Iraqi-American, women in Iraq hold a special place for Zainab.

She grew up in the shadow of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president as her father was his personal pilot.

She also witnessed first hand the violence of the Iran-Iraq war and decided early on in her life that she would help other women whose lives had been torn apart by war.

She fled Iraq at the age of 19 and just a few years later, in 1993, started Women to Women International.

Her organization has now helped more than 120,000 women in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, Nigeria, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, she has made more than 20 trips to her home country to chronicle the status of women and girls. Zainab just returned from her most recent visit and reports that there have been many changes.

She is deeply concerned about the growing number of impoverished women and the effects that will have on the rates of literacy, early marriage and polygamy.

And she is shocked by a new generational development, where young women in their 20s are less educated than their own mothers and are growing up with fewer liberties.

In this special episode of Inside Iraq from Washington, D.C., Al Jazeera's Abderrahim Foukara discusses with Salbi the status of women and girls in Iraq today.

This episode of Inside Iraq aired from Friday, August 14, 2009.

Watch the interview on Al Jazeera English.

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Nigeria's Elections

April 2011 — In the lead up to its April 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections, Nigeria has been experiencing increased tension and violence, especially in and around Nigeria's "Middle Belt". This violence comes even as the Independent Electoral Commission and the Nigerian government have promised a free and fair election.

Violence is occurring predominantly between Christian farmers and Muslim pastoralists, particularly in Jos, the capital of Nigeria and where one of the two Women for Women International-Nigeria (WfWI-Nigeria) offices is located. There, Christian and Muslim youths have been engaged in revenge attacks since the Christmas Eve bombings where multiple bombs exploded simultaneously in Jos, claiming the lives of at least 38. The revenge attacks resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, most of whom are women and children, as well as widespread destruction of property. According to the WfWI-Nigeria office, “Violence has characterized the campaigns going on in States like: Akwa-Ibom, Bauchi, Oyo, Plateau, Benue, Anambra, Imo.” However, they also note that, while there has been much grassroots campaigning in Enugu state, it has remained peaceful.


In response to the violence, grassroots women have organized peace protests. On January 31, 5,000 women and female students took to the streets in Jos, marching in solidarity to the Nigerian State House to protest killings of women and children, the destruction of property and calling for an end to sectarian violence. Included in the 5,000 participants of the peaceful protest were twenty past and present participants from WfWI-Nigeria. The protesting women were dressed in black, as a show of their mourning, and sang songs outside the Nigerian State House. The protestors lamented the fact that while certain areas in Jos — including polling stations and religious locations — are protected by the military, citizens were no longer safe in their homes or at the markets.

Yet, intermittent violence and tensions continue throughout Nigeria, most recently in the northeast of Nigeria within Borno state, where political opposition leaders and events have been targeted. While this violence has been blamed on Boko Haram, a radical Islamist sect, many believe it is politically motivated and worry that, if it continues, it will disrupt the election process. Human Rights Watch has called for newly elected officials to address Nigeria’s human rights abuses, in which they include acts of communal violence, electoral abuses, corruption, violence in the Niger Delta and the culture of impunity for human rights violations.

There have also been recent changes to the election timetable that is cause for suspicious speculation. The presidential election was initially scheduled for April 9th — with the National Assembly, Governorship, and State Assemblies elections scheduled to take place between April 2nd and 16th. On April 2nd the Independent Electoral Commission was forced to delay the elections due to the failure to get ballots and tally sheets to some polling stations. Since then, all elections have been pushed back by a week in an effort to ensure the elections remain free and fair. Nigerian opposition has voiced suspicions that the delay is part of a deliberate attempt by the ruling People’s Democratic Party to both sabotage the elections and undermine the electoral commission. Even with this claim of sabotage and worries that many will not return to the polls for the new election dates, Nigeria’s Former Head of State still has high hopes that all elections will be fair and transparent and will remain free of violence. This is supported by WfWI-Nigeria, who has found that, “As long as there is not violence, the electorates are willing to go out in there numbers to vote.”

Despite violence and changes to the election days, people in Nigeria are looking forward to exercising their right to participate in the democratic process. The WfWI-Nigeria office reports that the general atmosphere in Nigeria is charged as political activities are in top gear. For the first time since 1999, politicians are actively reaching out to the electorate in an effort to garner votes. Additionally, WfWI-Nigeria has seen women turning out in mass to register and collect voters’ cards, which has been a change from past voter registration efforts. Because this is the first time the voters’ registration has been properly organized, this is the first time many Nigerians, both men and women, have been properly registered.

Women have not remained silent during Nigeria’s election process. They have been active both in registration processes as well as in speaking out against the violence that has plagued the country in the lead up to the elections. It is essential that women’s voices and opinions continue to be heard in order for the Nigerian elections to remain transparent, legitimate, fair and free of violence.


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Increasing Violence in Nigeria Targets Women

Jos, Nigeria - March 7, 2010 — On Sunday, March 7, violence erupted in neighboring villages and towns around Jos,Nigeria. Reports have provided wide-rangingnumber of casualties, but the closest estimation states that 500 people were killed, mostly women and children, in the villages of Dogon Nahawa and Zot. This was followed by a more recent attack on March 17 which left 10 dead and houses burnt down, in a mostly Christian village of Riyom near Jos.

Women for Women International Nigeria Women

The attacks were said to be an act of retaliation against an earlier massacre in January that claimed 200 lives, primarily Muslims. Eye-witness accounts described indiscriminate killing by armed militants and the grisly aftermath of hundreds of bodies of women, children, and even babies strewn on the ground, slashed and disfigured by machetes.

Nigeria has long suffered protracted political and social troubles including corruption, oil disputes, and inter-ethnic violence. Worryingly, the latest round of violence seems to have directly targeted women and children.  Similar attacks last year in Nigeria led to the unfortunate loss of homes and businesses of Women for Women International program graduates, when a long-brewing religious conflict exploded into violence after a local election. The most recent round of violence again impacted Women for Women International program graduates, who report property theft and arson have stripped them of their homes and possessions.

"Normalcy is gradually returning to Jos," says WfWI Country Director for Nigeria Ngozi Eze, "but many still live in fear of another attack and rumors persist about missing people that are now believed to be killed. Families are also starting to flee the area to safer grounds in hopes of escaping the violence."

Despite their tragic loss, women of Jos are standing up, using their voices and collective strength to demand for peace and accountability by the government.

"Last week, hundreds of women from the Plateau state staged peaceful demonstrations in Jos and some took their protests to the National Assembly Abuja against the mayhem," says Eze. These women dressed in black as a sign of mourning, carried placards and chanted songs to express their displeasure over the handling of the crisis.

Despite the fact that they bear the brunt of war, with women and children constituting 75% of civilian casualties in conflict, women around the world have shown their unique ability to build peace and security.  From Liberia, to Rwanda, to Sudan, to Afghanistan, and now in Nigeria, women are banding together across lines of conflict such as religion, tribe or political party to demand an end to violence.  We join with them in calling for an immediate end to conflict and investment in resources necessary to ensure that civilians are protected and able to rebuild their lives, families and communities.

Women for Women International—Nigeria Office

Women for Women International officially began operations in Nigeria in 2000. WfWI–Nigeria's country office is headquartered in the Enugu the capital city of Enugu State and operates a field office in Jos the capital city of the Plateau State. Currently, there are 5,067 women actively participating in WfWI – Nigeria's year-long program and over 23,000 women have been served since program inception. Program participants include widows, single heads of household, returnees, internally displaced persons, and the physically challenged. WfWI's holistic program approach addresses women's economic, social, and political needs, and creates immediate and long-term opportunities for women and their families to move from crisis and poverty to stability, self-sufficiency, and active citizenship.  WfWI also first piloted the Men's Leadership Training Program in Nigeria and has trained over 500 male leaders since 2003. This program focuses on the education and training of male community leaders to build support and awareness for gender equity.

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Women for Women International's Nigeria Country Director Ngozi Eze given title of Chief in her community

Enugu, Nigeria - August 8, 2008 — On August 8, 2008, Ngozi Uchenna Eze was named a chief in her community, assuming the title of "Adaora of Etiti Amokwe Community of Enugu State" for her work in the community through Women for Women International (WfWI).

Women for Women in Nigeria

Ngozi, which means "the blessing of Almighty God," is a native of Nigeria and has been working for WfWI since 2000. She became the Nigeria Country Director in 2003. Under Ngozi's management, WfWI's Nigeria office has instituted specialized programs to educate women about HIV/AIDS and the harmful effects of some traditional practices, including female genital cutting and widowhood rituals. In August 2008, Ngozi was named a chief in honor and recognition of her contributions to women's development there. The honor has not only empowered Women for Women, but serves as an example of the impact the organization has had on the social development of women in the communities in which WfWI works.

Although it rained that day, Ngozi's celebration ceremony was a joyous and colorful occasion that brought together men and women of the Etiti Amokwe community in celebration of Ngozi's achievements and those of the women she has helped to raise up through the empowerment and training programs WfWI offers in Nigeria.

Women for Women International officially began operations in Nigeria in 2000. WfWI–Nigeria's country office is headquartered in the Enugu the capital city of Enugu State and operates a field office in Jos the capital city of the Plateau State. Currently, there are 5,067 women actively participating in WfWI – Nigeria's year-long program and over 23,000 women have been served since program inception. Program participants include widows, single heads of household, returnees, internally displaced persons, and the physically challenged. WfWI's holistic program approach addresses women's economic, social, and political needs, and creates immediate and long-term opportunities for women and their families to move from crisis and poverty to stability, self-sufficiency, and active citizenship. WfWI also first piloted the Men's Leadership Training Program in Nigeria and has trained over 500 male leaders since 2003. This program focuses on the education and training of male community leaders to build support and awareness for gender equity.

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Nigeria Country Director Ngozi Eze attends WAAD International Conference

Abuja, Nigeria - August 3, 2009 — From August 3-8, 2009, Women for Women International – Nigeria Country Director Ngozi Eze attended the fourth Women in Africa & the African Diaspora (WAAD) Conference in Abuja, Nigeria. The theme of the conference was "Education, Gender and Sustainable Development in the Age of Globalization" and served as a platform for scholars, practitioners and policy makers to discuss the connection between girls' education and sustainable development in a quickly globalizing world. WAAD, founded in 1989, is an opportunity for people from all backgrounds and professions to engage on women's issues in Africa and the Diaspora.

Participants in the WfWI-Nigeria program learn literacy skills to assist them toward economic self-sufficiency.

We congratulate Ngozi on her participation in this conference, where she presented her paper, "From Victim to Active Citizen: A Model for Women's Empowerment – A Case Study of Women for Women International-Nigeria." Created in 2000, WfWI-Nigeria has served over 23,000 women through a core program of rights awareness and job skills training, as well as direct aid via sponsorship. Additionally, WfWI-Nigeria engages men in women's empowerment through the Men's Leadership Training Program. Ngozi reports the WfWI-Nigeria has helped women register over 300 cooperative groups and open bank accounts. WfWI-Nigeria will soon initiate the development of a Women's Opportunity Center, which will expand services to program participants and graduates.

Women for Women International officially began operations in Nigeria in 2000. WfWI–Nigeria's country office is headquartered in the Enugu the capital city of Enugu State and operates a field office in Jos the capital city of the Plateau State. Currently, there are 5,067 women actively participating in WfWI – Nigeria's year-long program and over 23,000 women have been served since program inception. Program participants include widows, single heads of household, returnees, internally displaced persons, and the physically challenged. WfWI's holistic program approach addresses women's economic, social, and political needs, and creates immediate and long-term opportunities for women and their families to move from crisis and poverty to stability, self-sufficiency, and active citizenship. WfWI also first piloted the Men's Leadership Training Program in Nigeria and has trained over 500 male leaders since 2003. This program focuses on the education and training of male community leaders to build support and awareness for gender equity.

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Afghanistan 10 Years On: How the Peace Process Could Endanger Women's Progress

This past Friday, October 7th, 2011, marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the end of a decade in which Afghan women have been in an unusually bright spotlight of public attention. Since the beginning of the war, women have been used as both a rallying cry and a justification for continuing aid and operations; now, they may be relegated as merely a political bargaining chip in the peace process. As Afghanistan and the United States try to work towards a peaceful settlement that engages the Taliban, we must remind ourselves that the promotion and protection of women's rights is vital to efforts to achieve sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

While it is true that over the last decade Afghan women have experienced a transformative change in their legal rights, for the women in Afghanistan who are working to improve their lives, their journey continues to be long and hard, with nearly as many setbacks as successes. The maternal mortality ratio in Afghanistan is the highest in the world. For every 100,000 births, 1,400 women die. This high mortality ratio is a product of Afghan women's limited access to health services; just 24% of births are attended by skilled health staff. Under the Taliban, Afghan women were banned from attending school. Today, just 6% of Afghan women have received any formal education and only 12% of women aged 15 years or older are literate. This has had a substantial negative effect on women's ability to participate in the peace-building process. A lack of access to basic healthcare, education, and legal services remains the norm for the majority of Afghan women. These numbers alone speak to the enormous obstacles Afghan women face.

But signs of change are not hard to find, and women have made progress in ways that seemed impossible a decade ago. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, Afghanistan became one of the few countries where more women won seats than the minimum number set by a quota. Today, major pushes to provide education for girls are starting to succeed, and 42% of girls are attending primary school. Considering the enormous set-backs of the Taliban-era and the obstacles still facing Afghan women, the progress they have made over the past ten years is remarkable.

At Women for Women International, we have seen the Afghan women and men participating in our programs become powerful agents of change in their communities. Take the story of Azada, a woman who used the vocational skills she learned through our program to financially support herself for the first time in her life, and who now trains and mentors other women in her community. Across the country, women graduates like Azada are voting, participating in decision-making in their homes and communities, and serving as role models for future generations. We know, however, that women will achieve the most when they are supported in their efforts by the men around them. That's why we've established the Men's Leadership Program, which has engaged over 2,000 male community leaders to build awareness and greater respect for women's rights; each of these men in turn have promised to reach out to 10 to 15 of their peers and teach them the importance of supporting women's rights, preventing violence against women, and seeing men and women as equal partners.

These and other gains could be threatened if women are compromised in the Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Process, which is working towards a political settlement of the conflict and includes talks with members of the Taliban. Women are already severely under-represented at the talks, comprising only 9 of the 70 members of the High Peace Council, the Afghan body reported to be responsible for negotiating talks with the Taliban. Their voices are being silenced by the Council's male members, and concerns that their rights may be traded for peace are growing.

In order for Afghanistan to attain true peace, the peace process must reflect all Afghan people, including women. We call on the governments of Afghanistan and the United States to recognize that as gender disparities increase in a state, so does violence, and that lasting peace will not be possible without guaranteeing protection for basic human rights to all Afghans, women and men. We ask them to ensure that women, who had an equal share in the sufferings brought by the war, have an equal share in the solution. We urge those involved in the peace process to reaffirm their commitment to men and women's equality under the law and to refuse to trade away human rights under the false hope that doing so will bring peace.

Women for Women International believes that Afghan women have the power to contribute not only to the improvement of their family's lives, but to the stability of their communities and nation. A firm commitment is urgently needed by the Government of Afghanistan and all international actors to ensure women's substantive participation in the talks as well as the protection of women's rights in any negotiated compromise. To give up on these women would be to condemn them for their courage in standing up to those who would rob them of their most basic human rights. Every day, Afghan women politicians, social workers, teachers, doctors, police, judges, artists, and students jeopardize their safety simply by asserting their rights and working to rebuild more inclusive communities. They know the risks of verbal and physical assault, of acid attacks, and of threats against their family. But they also know the costs of inaction. Despite continued adversity and set-backs, their hope and determination to strive for a better future has not wavered. Why should ours?

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Afghan Tribal Elders Ban an Abusive Tradition for Women in Khost Province and What that Means for Women across Afghanistan

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

In December of last year, a council of tribal elders and religious leaders in Nadir Shah Kot, a district of Afghanistan's conservative Khost province, banned the traditional practice of giving away a young girl as retribution for a family member's crime, called baad. Though the local-level political developments of a single district may seem unremarkable, this action actually represents an important step forward for all efforts to combat Afghanistan's entrenched patterns of violence against women, for two key reasons. Firstly, this is a policy response developed, championed and adopted locally, a crucial detail that makes its implementation and credibility all the more likely. Second, the measure was developed, advocated and successfully adopted through the leadership of male community leaders, rather than the exclusive work of women advocating from the margins of the political debate. The Khost province effort to prevent and respond to violence against women locally will be a critical test case for how national-level efforts to curb violence can be successfully implemented on the ground.

Although significant pressure from American and international leadership, as well as from Afghan women in-country, has produced a proliferation of national-level policies aimed at preventing and responding to violence against women throughout Afghanistan, the justice sector has neither the capacity nor, it often seems, the will, to mediate the thousands of family disputes that arise in its nearly 400 districts each year. Therefore, most conflicts in Afghanistan's districts are settled by the local jirga, community councils governed by local elders and religious leaders. The jirga ordinarily deliver verdicts based on traditional or religious interpretations rather than law, often with limited to no proper legal expertise. This often results in verdicts that are discriminatory to -- and often exploitative of -- women.

The practice of baad is a product of jirga tradition. According to a report by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), this informal method of dispute resolution was established as a punishment for serious crimes, like murder and rape, which many tribal leaders argued could not be justifiably settled through a simple exchange of money. UNAMA reports that baad, which it calls "one of the most egregious types of violence against women in Afghanistan", is used regularly throughout the country. Under international humanitarian law, the practice amounts to forced slavery and exploitation. According to one woman interviewed for the UNAMA report, "Instead of the murderer being punished, an innocent girl is punished and she has to spend all her life in slavery and subject to cruel violence."

It is important to note, particularly within Western policy-making circles (which can be squeamish in the face of allegations of so-called "Western imposition" in practices excused as "cultural" or "traditional"), that there is neither legal nor religious basis for baad, nor is there overwhelming popular support for the practice among Afghan people. A UNAMA study found that despite the prevalence of this practice throughout rural Afghanistan, most Afghans opposed the use of baad to settle disputes. In several southern Afghan provinces, both male and female participants told UNAMA that baad puts the woman in a vulnerable position, because her "own relative is responsible for murdering a member of the family into which she has married" and, rather than settling the dispute, revenge is taken out on the girl.

Furthermore, the use of baad to settle disputes is explicitly outlawed in Afghan federal law. Article 25 of the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Afghanistan (EVAW) Law, enacted in 2009, states that,"If a person gives or takes a women for marriage in retribution for a baad, the perpetrator sentenced to long-term imprisonment". The practice is also deemed punishable by the Article 517 of the Afghan Penal Code, which dictates that "A person who gives in marriage a widow or girl... for the purpose of 'Baad dadan'.. shall be sentenced".

The exchange of girls to settle a family or tribal dispute is also contrary to Sharia law and Islamic tradition. The Koran eliminated the pre-Islamic traditional practice of exchanging brides as property by determining that any marriage without bridal consent is invalid. A principle of Sharia law also determines that it is unlawful to "forcibly inherit a woman", through baad or any other means.

Westerners will hence take heart in the measure coming out of the Khost province, which is considered to be conservative (as opposed to Kabul's cosmopolitan oasis of educated women and considerably more relaxed gender relations when compared to its rural cousins). The mountainous province in eastern Afghanistan, which shares a border and many aspects of tribal identity with the Taliban-controlled Waziristan province in western Pakistan, has been a bleak example of the widespread gender inequality that the international community has sought to eliminate since entering Afghanistan in 2001. In a June 2011 report, the World Bank found that the female literacy rate in the Khost province is just 1.2%, a fraction of the already-low national average of 11.4%, and only 2-3 girls are enrolled in school for every 10 boys. Women in the Khost province continue to live in fear of violence, which is promoted by the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents still present in the region.

So last December's move by Nadir Shah Kot elders to ban the practice of baad was not an inconsequential one. The tribal elders and religious leaders who supported the ban argued that baad had led to an increase in domestic abuse and female suicide in the district, and hence put forward the local-level measure banning the practice. Community members praised the decision, arguing that baad had been an ineffective and unjust payment for a crime because it punished an innocent woman, rather than her guilty relative. "Every day, we heard that the groom and other family members were beating up my sister" recalled Zenikhil, the brother of a girl given away through a baad exchange, "We have always said amongst ourselves that we turned the life of my sister into hell and buried her alive."

Violators of the rule will now face heavy fines of 80,000 Pakistani rupees (equivalent to nearly 1,000 dollars), a high price that Khost leaders hope will prevent future abuses. The policy also takes an important step farther by limiting the amount of money a groom can demand for a dowry to the equivalent of $2,350. In the years before the ruling, the average dowry in the Khost province rose to the equivalent of 10,000 to 25,000 dollars, a price that few families in the rural province could afford. According to UNIFEM, high bridal prices often lead to "dowry murder", the practice of a wife being killed by her husband or in-laws, because her family cannot afford to meet the demands of the requested dowry. The practice also leads to a higher incidence of young men being unable to afford to marry, and wealthier, older men exploiting their wealth by taking younger - and more - brides.

Clearly the local ownership of this issue is an important factor in the successful adoption of the new anti-violence measures in Khost. In addition to this, the fact that the policy's champions were respected, male leaders is also hugely important. Much of the advocacy surrounding women's rights - within Afghanistan and throughout the world - has been insulated within the women's community. However, men can be powerful allies in the movement to protect women's rights. Afghanistan is no exception - it is men who overwhelmingly constitute political, religious and community leadership, and important efforts to curb violence against women cannot happen without them. In my own work with Women for Women International, we have found that the trainings we have offered male religious, political, military and other community leaders on the importance of women's rights, the detriments of violence, and the value of women's contributions to society have been crucial tools in our work to advance women's rights and participation. By targeting male leaders -- not unlike those in Khost -- we are able to enjoin them to use their positions of influence to spread the word throughout the community. In Afghanistan, we have worked with 400 Afghan mullahs, who have in turn incorporated these messages into their Friday speeches to their congregations.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about the Nadir Shah Kot elders' efforts is that it has already been seen to have a ripple effect throughout other districts across the Khost province. Following the encouragement of Abdul Jabar Naeemi, the Governor of Khost, tribal elders in seven other districts in the province, such as Spayrah and Tanayoo, also issued edicts banning the practice. This trend marks an important step in the effort to combat violence and discrimination against women in Afghanistan. The next step will be ensuring that these important policies are put into practice, and that the lives of the women they aim to protect will be ultimately free of violence and exploitation.

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Building Bridges of Peace and Prosperity for Afghan Women

Part of CSW 55 Blog Series

By Su Chuen Foo

New York, March 4, 2011 — Since the start of international intervention in Afghanistan 10 years ago, and the fall of the Taliban government, at no point in time were women in Afghanistan at a greater risk of being sidelined in discussions aimed at determining power-sharing agreements between the Afghan government and insurgent groups. Women for Women International, has therefore taken the opportunity to host a parallel event at the 55th Commission on the Status of Women to shine a spotlight on the realities of women in Afghanistan.

Panel members of the event engaged in discussion. From left to right: Nasrine Gross, Afghan activist and Founder of the Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies, and Education; Saba Ghori, Senior South Asia Specialist and Violence against Women Advisor from the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; and Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy and External Relations Analyst and Women for Women International’s delegate.

This panel “No Peace Without Women: An Urgent Call to Help Women in Afghanistan Build Bridges of Peace and Prosperity for their Country” brought together representatives from Afghanistan and U.S. civil society and a delegate from the U.S. State Department to discuss the plight of Afghan women and outline actionable items the international community can do to elevate Afghan women’s voices in the peace process. The panelists include Nasrine Gross, an outstanding activist on Afghan women’s issues and Founder of the Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies, and Education; Saba Ghori, Senior South Asia Specialist and Violence against Women Advisor from the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; and Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy and External Relations Analyst and Women for Women International’s delegate.

The event began with an update on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. This is the third attempt by the Afghan people to achieve democracy. Diplomatic efforts to suppress terrorism are lacking. Corruption is rampant and women still fear for their security when they venture outside. Adult women constitute the largest illiterate population in society and “women are still being abused without recourse.” Although women composed 1.7 million of the 3.5 million voters and 416 candidates in the last election, women are still being excluded in peace negotiations that will determine the future course of their nation.

Standing in support of women in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the U.S. government has been a strong proponent for the rights of Afghan women. This priority is evidenced by U.S.’ efforts to advocate for women’s full inclusion in Afghanistan’s peacebuilding processes, such as for women to be present at the Peace Jirga in June 2010, the Kabul Conference in July 2010, and at the High Peace Council set up by President Karzai to oversee the peace and reconciliation process. More importantly, this priority is best captured in a presidential directive issued by the White House which will direct development of the U.S.’ National Action Plan to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for women’s inclusion in all levels of the peace process. This National Action Plan will include Afghanistan as an urgent focus country with the hopes of increasing Afghan women’s political, economic, and social rights.

Nasrine Gross, author and activist, has been engaged in Afghan women’s political empowerment since 2001 where she has trained over 3,000 women on leadership and political skills.

Policy experts in Afghanistan, the U.S., and the panelists at this session agree that urgency in Afghan women’s issues have grown, thanks to the advocacy and outreach efforts of civil society and fellow women’s rights supporters. Yet, we need to remain vigilant and continue shining the spotlight on Afghan women’s rights abuses. Afghan women are at the crossroads once again — actions in the near future can determine where Afghan women will stand in the blueprint of their nation’s rebuilding process. We need to agree on a gender agenda for Afghanistan and put forth a unified, strong voice to call attention to the ongoing women’s rights abuses, to the brutal stoning of women, to the acid and poisonous gas attacks against girls in schools, and to the forced and early marriages of Afghan girls to the demise of their country.

One great opportunity to do that is on March 8 during the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day when Women for Women International is hosting a global Join Me on the Bridge campaign calling all women’s right supporters to meet on bridges worldwide, to say “No Women No Peace.” Ultimately, Afghan men and women, civil society and government alike need to define what peace means in Afghanistan, and what peace will look like with the reconciliation and reintegration of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Without continued conversations and pressure, the prediction by Sweeta Noori, Women for Women International Afghanistan Country Director that “hope is dying in Afghanistan” will become a reality.

To learn more about the 55th Commission on the Status of Women, go here.

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What Reconciliation Means for Women in Today's Afghanistan

This June, America's campaign in Afghanistan became the longest war in U.S. History, and also this summer total spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hit the $1 trillion mark. American financial and human resources have been exhausted and emerging consensus from General Petraeus on down holds that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. Consequently, the U.S. and other international actors facing much the same political climate at home are scouting an exit strategy. Increasingly, reconciliation with Taliban leadership is offered as a necessary next step if peace and security are to be achieved. The international community finds itself at a crossroads, with mounting domestic pressure to disengage pitted against civil society prognostications that reconciliation will mean a return to the dark ages of the Taliban, where human and women's rights were trampled in the name of fundamentalism.

Women for Women International (WfWI) acknowledges that, as founder Zainab Salbi says, “all wars end in talks.” The war must end, if Afghanistan is ever to rebuild and emerge as a peaceful and prosperous nation. Enough blood has been shed, with the majority of the deaths belonging to Afghan civilians, including women and children, who are also displaced, widowed, targeted for violence and exclusion and whose rights are routinely manipulated for political ends. So while peace talks are necessary, it is incumbent upon the Afghan government and the international community to ensure an inclusive and just peace process, where women and minorities are represented, clear parameters are drawn around who is eligible for reconciliation, constitutional and human rights standards are sacrosanct and accountability measures are in place to ensure those parameters are respected.

Defining the Redlines

President Karzai has vowed that all reconciled insurgents must agree to the following pre-conditions: (1) renounce violence, (2) cut ties to Al Qaeda, and (3) vow to uphold the Afghan constitution. However, the specific details of reconciliation plans remain troublingly vague, especially when it comes to women's rights. The views of women and minority tribes who have voiced concern are routinely marginalized in Afghanistan's political debates, and human rights advocates worldwide are echoing their grave concerns about reconciliation. Many women in Afghanistan, including Rohina Samim, Director of the WfWI-Afghanistan microfinance program, caution that if clear redlines are not drawn, the rise of fundamentalist Taliban to national power could mean dire consequences for women.

There is reason for concern: the Taliban were and still are notorious for extreme oppression of women in all areas, from public beatings to imprisonment in the home, to public executions for crimes of “honor,” to forbidding women from going to work, school or anywhere in public without a male escort. Afghan women face the constant threat of rape and attacks by insurgents and receive threatening “night letters” warning of impending assassination as a “common means of intimidation and control” over women and local communities. Ethnic minorities such as the Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Tajiks also faced similar violence and exclusion under the Taliban and are sounding alarm. These gross human rights violations are unforgettable, intolerable and will compromise the integrity of the peace process if they are not held to account, which would set the stage for acceptance of future abuses. The talks must happen, but only through a credible and representative process that explicitly outlines the protection of women's and minority rights and full social, economic and political participation as nonnegotiable preconditions to peace.

Obstacles to Lasting Peace and Reconciliation

Unfortunately, the rights of minorities and women are often considered “soft” issues by policymakers, and have not merited serious attention in proposals for reconciliation frameworks to date. This view is not only incorrect; it lays the foundations for major obstacles to achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan. The status of women is an indicator for the overall direction of society, serving as a valuable barometer for social unrest and instability. For instance, violence and extremism are often first visible when directed against women. Institutionalized violence under the Taliban regime was first directed against women when they gained power in 1996; the international community only began to pay attention to the group's draconian rule when the violence manifested itself in other areas of the society and, ultimately, in the support of the Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks of September 11th. World Bank data shows a strong correlation between gender parity and violence within a state, indicating that addressing women's rights will directly improve security. It is hence clear that what is happening to women in Afghanistan should be seen not as a marginal issue but as valuable intelligence about the efficacy of our efforts to achieve stability in the country. Tacit endorsement of violence against women through carte blanche reconciliation with Taliban leadership should be understood as a precursor to a violent and unstable Afghanistan that will remain a security threat to its people, the region and beyond.

Another tragic flaw in the current debates around reconciliation is the lack of clarity around which groups and individuals are eligible for reconciliation. President Karzai has euphemized all Taliban as “angry brothers,” encouraging them to return to the peace table. Many international actors overlook the diversity of factions and ideologies within “the Taliban,' which fosters an understanding of one, united, homogenous group and precariously ignores critical differences between many factions and between moderates and fundamentalists within those factions. There are indeed moderate insurgents who, much like the international troops, are fed up with fighting nine long years of war. These individuals, whether at the leadership or foot soldier level, simply want a guarantee that they will be able to live their lives peacefully and secure a job if they agree to reconcile. However, these individuals differ greatly from fundamentalists who are fighting for an idea, not for any strategic or economic reason, and will keep fighting for that idea forever. Members of this group will not accept preconditions and, if reconciled, will likely continue to commit severe human rights abuses. Setting clear redlines as explored above will help to differentiate between the two and delineate a more effective and credible peace process.

Finally, no solution will be accepted and embraced by the larger Afghan society if it repeats the same power structures that have previously led to destruction, oppression and the credibility crisis in which the current government finds itself. This is to say, Afghans have trouble hoping for a just and abiding peace process where Taliban are penalized for war crimes and crimes against humanity when they have seen that similar abuses by other warlords have not been held to account in the current government. Parameters that are drawn for the Taliban must also be honored by current leadership—a peace process must transcend beyond the political elite of Kabul and into the rest of the country.

Recommendations for Inclusive Peace and Security in Afghanistan

Full and meaningful inclusion of women and minorities in this process is not only a way to promote security but is also a proven method of achieving representative dialogue that adequately reflects the concerns of all a country's citizens. Women have insight on the practical implications of high-level policies and negotiations. They know the intricate patchwork of the daily lives of communities in ways that may not be reflected by the political elite. The richness of their perspective has a definite impact on the content and nature of any agreement. For instance, a 2009 WfWI survey found that Afghan women considered political instability and incompetence of politicians as the biggest political problems they faced, followed by corruption, and then the presence of the Taliban. This finding points to women's interest in negotiating peace with all Afghans, including Taliban, and also reflects popular distrust of the government.

Records from peace negotiations in other countries show that that when women are included in the process, there is a higher chance of those agreements having real impact. Afghan women must be included at the negotiating table in no less than 30% representation, following UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Similarly, ethnic minorities such as the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras must also be represented. Their contributions to the discussion and buy-in to the results are critical for the longevity of whatever peace is agreed. Their voices also bring a balance of power and other elements to the discussion that cannot be insured in talks that are exclusively Taliban-Afghan Government. Including women and minorities at the table can also help distinguish between reconcilable and irreconcilable insurgents.

The only viable option for a credible and lasting peace in Afghanistan is a reconciliation process that features a clearly defined vetting procedure that is conducted by a representative sample of the Afghan population and is tied to real enforcement mechanisms. This means setting a tone of gravity when drawing redlines by vowing, for example, to withdraw international assistance to Afghanistan if they are crossed. U.S. Secretary of State Secretary Clinton has indicated that she considers women's rights to be a redline for the United States, which is a laudable first step. The U.S. must next empower that precondition by delineating clear enforcement mechanisms to ensure, for example, that if the Afghan government starts prohibiting girls from going to school or women from running for office; if rule of law is sacrificed for thug-style enforcement; if individuals are harassed or killed simply for being a member of the wrong tribe, then the U.S. is prepared to reinforce its standards with real consequences.

The U.S. and all international actors must bear in mind the considerable challenges associated with this option—it will require considerable enforcement on the ground as well as from Washington, London and abroad. In its current state, Afghanistan does not have the capacity to enforce these preconditions. The justice sector not only lacks the capacity to process the numerous human rights abuses and other legal infractions that exist, it is also considered the most corrupt by Afghans. There are few female lawyers, and the ones that do exist are threatened or attacked for doing their jobs. Capacity to deliver the justice that peace demands must be built from the ground up, and this is going to take a serious commitment of time and resources. Additionally, the international community should encourage the leadership of other Muslim-majority nations who have exhibited better track records in human rights and women's social, economic and political participation as a model for the emerging leadership of Afghanistan.

In sum, peace and stability can be achieved in Afghanistan through a careful reconciliation process in which goals and redlines are clear, enforcement mechanisms are defined and the tenets of internationally-agreed human rights standards is paramount. This is the best hope we have to achieve an inclusive and sustainable peace that will be palatable to the people it most concerns: Afghans themselves.


  1. HRW. The Ten-Dollar Talib & Women's Rights: Afghan Women and the Risks of Reintegration and Reconciliation, July 2010.
  2. World Bank: CPR Working Papers. Paper No. 8: Gender Equality and Civil Wars, September 2003.
  3. Integrity Watch Afghanistan. Afghan Perceptions and Experiences of Corruption: A National Survey 2010, July 2010.
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Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi urges U.S. senators to build inclusive peace in Afghanistan

Washington DC – July 27, 2010 — In a hearing held today by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presided by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi urged senators to not forget Afghan women as they consider what role America will play in proposed talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. At the hearing, Salbi advocated for an inclusive peace process that includes women, ethnic minorities, and all members of Afghan society. The hearing was the twelfth Afghanistan briefing held by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the past 18 months, and Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE) praised it as the most beneficial hearing on Afghanistan yet.

The hearing was called to discuss options for reconciliation plans between the Afghan government and insurgent groups, a topic that has sharply divided proponents and critics. As Chairman Kerry explained, it has become generally accepted that the “conflict in Afghanistan will not be solved on the battlefield,” leading many to consider talks with Taliban as a necessary next step if the war is to end. Yet, as Ranking Member Robert Lugar (R-IN) pointed out, “much of the reconciliation program is still undetermined,” and many consider the idea either an impractical tactic unlikely to succeed or a moral outrage.

Salbi was called as an expert witness to share the voices of grassroots, Afghan civilians—women, ethnic minorities, and the impoverished and hungry majority of the population—as the Congress and the Administration consider what role the U.S. should play. Arguing for an inclusive and just peace that does not forsake the interests of marginalized groups, Salbi urged government leaders “to see what is happening to women as not a marginal issue but as a national security issue that is telling about the direction for Afghan society.” She further explained that changes in the status of women provide strong societal indicators for the overall trajectory of countries, citing the Taliban's initial violence against women as an early warning sign for the widespread and international acts of aggression the regime would ultimately undertake.

A number of Senators raised the concerns of women who have rejected the idea of reconciliation. Citing the history of gender-based violence in years past, many Afghan women, like WfWI-Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori, argue that we must be prepared to talk to the Taliban if peace is ever to be achieved. Echoing the sentiments of leaders like General Petraeus who have also conceded that there is no military solution to the problems in Afghanistan, Salbi promoted this concept that talks must take place, but that they must take place within clear parameters or “redlines” about who is and is not eligible for reconciliation (war criminals and extremists, for instance, should not be).

“Without talks this war will never end,” said Salbi, explaining that all wars ultimately end in talks. However, she said, “No solution will be accepted and embraced by the larger Afghan society if it repeats the same power structures and the same players that led to the destruction and oppression of the country.” Success in Afghanistan, she explained, will not be achieved without a peace process and a leadership structure that values and truly represents the perspectives of all citizens.

Salbi was joined on the panel by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former Ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan and Chargˇ to Afghanistan, and Dr. David Kilcullen, former Australian army officer and an expert on global counterinsurgency. Salbi, Ambassador Crocker, and Dr. Kilcullen testified on topics from counterinsurgency, to human rights abuses, to corruption, to the crucial role of Afghanistan's neighbors, notably Pakistan, India, Iran, and Turkey.

To view a video of the hearing and access the full version of Zainab Salbi's testimony, click here.

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Creating Effective and Inclusive Peace and Reconciliation in Afghanistan

Creating Effective and Inclusive Peace and Reconciliation in Afghanistan

According to Afghanistan Rights Monitor, 2010 is quickly becoming the worst year for Afghan civilians and “the space and depth of the insurgency and counter-insurgency-related violence have maximized dramatically." In addition to increasing insecurity, corruption, poverty, and human rights violations remain rampant. Programs such as the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Programme and the National Solidarity Programme are promising new commitments towards establishing peace and encouraging economic development. Yet one critical area remains under-funded and often overlooked: the rights of women.

The problems facing Afghanistan as a whole have specific implications for women. As in the rest of the world, Afghanistan's women are more likely to live in poverty and be targeted for violence, and less likely to enjoy the benefits of national services or international aid. “There are two Afghanistans,” says Sweeta Noori, Women for Women International's Afghanistan Country Director, “The international community often sees one Afghanistan that is progressing and developing. Yet there is another Afghanistan that is violent, unstable, and very scary for women.” Secretary General Ban and the 40 foreign ministers from around the world met in Kabul to realign their existing commitments with Afghan priorities for security, development, reconciliation, rule of law and peace at the Kabul Conference this week. As we move forward from this conference, donors and the Afghan government must equally commit themselves to guaranteeing that women are not only represented in these debates, but that their rights and contributions are not marginalized as Afghanistan embarks on the reconciliation process.

Women for Women International specifically recommends that: (1) Afghan women are included at a minimum 25% quota in all levels of decision-making and reconciliation talks; (2) Reintegration conditions explicitly include women's rights; (3) War criminals are not reintegrated into Afghan society without any recourse for accountability; (4) Enforcement mechanisms for reintegration and reconciliation are developed; and (5) Donor countries support community-level economic development with specific funds earmarked for women. We must not allow short-term security gains to equate long-term losses and oppression for Afghan women.

Gender Implications of the Conflict in Afghanistan

Insecurity: The security situation in Afghanistan is increasingly unstable. According to the UN, 40% of Afghanistan is still vulnerable to Taliban. According to Afghanistan Rights Monitor, “up to 1,200 security incidents were recorded in June, the highest number of incidents compared to any month since 2002” and the massive US-led increase in troops has “failed to quell the Taliban-led insurgency.” The lack of security has especially negative impacts for women, who face rape and attacks by insurgents when they participate in the public sphere. New plans to address insecurity through reintegration and reconciliation with the Taliban are gaining support at the highest levels of international leadership, yet the Taliban leadership has thus far given no indication of a newfound commitment to women's rights. Women throughout Afghanistan, including Rohina Samim of Women for Women International-Afghanistan (WfWI-Afghanistan), are expressing the view that “if the Taliban gain a share of national power as part of a peace agreement, the consequences for women's rights could be dire.” Karzai's proposal to empower local militias to address insecurity is similarly problematic: “Militia equals tribal,” says WfWI-Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori, “if the government empowers the militias this will mean tribal war for Afghanistan.”

Corruption: Corruption throughout the Afghan government is crippling. According to a survey conducted by Integrity Watch Afghanistan, the Afghan population as a whole paid twice as much in bribes in 2009 as it had paid in 2007 and a majority of people in Afghanistan (70%) believe that corruption is a common occurrence and a normal way of doing business with the state. Additionally, corruption is fueling conflict and support of insurgent forces across the country. Corruption continues to be a problem for international development assistance as well. Closer examination of existing aid patterns reveals an estimated 40% of aid goes back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries – some $6 billion since 2001. Of the small sum that reaches poor Afghans, even less reaches the most vulnerable people at the bottom of the social pyramid: women and children.

Poverty: Afghanistan is home to among the world's most extreme poverty levels. It is the 2nd poorest nation in the world, with over 42% of the population living in absolute poverty. Approximately 8.5 million people (37%) are on the borderline of food insecurity, and 7.4 million people – nearly a third of the population – are unable to get enough food to live active, healthy lives. The situation is especially dire for women. According to UNIFEM, Afghan women fall at the bottom of global poverty indices. Afghanistan has a Gender Development Index (GDI) value of 0.300, which ranks Afghanistan as the third lowest country in terms of gender disparity related to standards of living in the world. Although programs like the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) are beginning to address these problems by diverting funds from Kabul to the provinces, there is still insufficient support for women. The 10% of NSP funds reserved for women are often spent elsewhere. As Women for Women International-Afghanistan's Sweeta Noori says, “the NSP is good, but not for women.”

Human Rights: Human rights violations continue to be synonymous with the conflict in Afghanistan. Civilians continue to be the main casualties of the fighting. According to Afghan Rights Monitor, around 1,074 civilians were killed and more than 1,500 injured in war-related incidents in the first six months of 2010. Warlords and tribal leaders continue to restrict the movement and freedoms of villagers. The problems facing all of Afghanistan are even worse for women. Afghanistan has the world's second highest maternal mortality rate and 7% of women die in child birth. That is one woman every 27 minutes. Furthermore, the UN reports that 80% of women are affected by domestic violence. Female politicians, journalists, and even women and girls seeking education are assaulted and sometimes killed by Taliban forces and other insurgents. Women who seek the vote are also intimidated and, as Noori describes, elected female politicians are paraded about as “window dressings,” often purely cosmetic indications of women's political participation. Meanwhile, “real women” who run for office are often threatened with night letters or killed. The example of 20% participation by women in last month's Peace Jirga has been hailed, yet these women were not able to inform debate. “I'd rather have five women who are really powerful at the Peace Jirga than 300 window dressings,” says Noori.

Building Inclusive Peace by Investing in Women's Rights and Participation

In order to effectively address the continuing problems in Afghanistan and guarantee lasting peace, women must be included in the conversation. As mothers and caretakers, women have their fingers on the pulse of society and reinvest up to 90% of their income in the family. As leaders, they are often the first to cross lines of conflict to come together for common good. Afghan women must be able to access knowledge and leadership opportunities and to inform debate at all levels of the economy and society.

Women's Leadership in Human Rights and Reconciliation: As more than half of Afghanistan's population and the demographic that shoulders a disproportionate burden of poverty, violence, hunger and marginalization, women must be represented at any discussion that will define the solutions to the country's security and development challenges. International promises to transition development and security strategy and funding to Afghan control must be inextricably linked to a commitment by the Afghan government to uphold women's rights and full participation in the society. Any peace negotiations should proceed only with women in decision-making roles at the negotiating table, operating according to a clearly defined vetting process that disqualifies war criminals and individuals with a history of human and women's rights abuses, associated with real enforcement mechanisms that will hold pledges to uphold women's rights and renounce violence to account, such as withdrawing funding for noncompliance.

Women for Women International encourages the U.S. and all international donors to take up the following recommendations in order to ensure that women's rights are not sold down the river as Afghanistan transitions: The 25% quota of women parliamentarians should be applied to reconciliation talks and to local governance, with women represented in decision-making roles at rates no less than 25%. Additionally, any plans to reintegrate former insurgents must explicitly include the requirement that women's rights will be upheld and women must be included in any decisions regarding which insurgents should be reintegrated. War criminals and insurgents with a large record of human rights abuses cannot be reintegrated without any recourse for accountability. Specific consequences must be adopted for reintegrated insurgents who do not remain committed to women's rights. As Secretary Clinton said, “peace and justice are very important, but can't come at the cost of women and women's lives.”

Women's Leadership in Anti-Corruption and Development: Investing in Afghan women will not only help guarantee the implementation of women's rights but will also help reduce corruption and poverty. According to Human Rights Watch, many Afghan women are arguing that improved governance and accountability are integral parts of forging peace. Women's ideas and suggestions on corruption must be heard. Additionally, women must have a crucial role in all economic development programs. Experts on the ground such as Noori know that the focus needs to be on community-level economic development. Civilian-led development efforts must be continually funded by international governments and specific funds must be earmarked for women. Investment is especially needed in comprehensive rural development, including market-based vocational skills training for women. Development strategies must empower women from the grassroots to the grass-tops, with equal investment in microfinance, vocational skills training and healthcare.

Models like that of the National Solidarity Programme that attempt to decentralize assistance should be scaled, but also should ensure that earmarks exist for local women's programs and that those flows are monitored and evaluated effectively. More money should be directed to women and girls: instead of 10% of the funds, programs like the NSP should allocate a minimum of 25% of their development money to women, who are known to reinvest in families and communities. Furthermore, foreign countries must ensure local leadership like the NSP provincial councils actually do represent women as well as men. In order to guarantee that the NSP is continually able to implement successful development programs, it needs to remain dedicated to development. Recommendations that the NSP serve as a reintegration mechanism are misguided. Adding additional tasks to the NSP will only serve to threaten its success. While the NSP could most certainly serve as a model for new reintegration programs, it must be preserved as a development—not a political—mechanism.

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State Department Hosts Roundtable on Afghan Women

Washington, D.C. - June 9, 2010 — Office of the Spokesman - Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls Tina Tchen, Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Rosa Brooks, and Director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force at USAID Jim Bever on June 9 participated in a State Department hosted roundtable discussion on Women in Afghanistan. The roundtable brought together members of civil society, officials from across government, and Members of Congress who have been leading voices in support of Afghan women.

The discussion centered on achievements reached by Afghan women in various sectors, including health, education, rule of law, and governance. The need for civilian-military coordination that can address both security as well as long term stability and economic development was a theme throughout the discussion.

Participants also included Co-founder of Women for Women International Ms. Zainab Salbi and Rona Kabiri, a Fulbright Scholar from Afghanistan. The panel was moderated by Margaret McKean, Senior Executive Assistant in the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Members of Congress in attendance - Congresswoman Nita Lowey (NY), Congresswoman Susan Davis (CA), Congresswoman Gwen Moore (WI), Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (IL), Congresswoman Jackie Speier (CA) – each expressed their strong commitment to working to empower women in Afghanistan.

“Today's discussion is an unprecedented look at how we can combine forces – defense, development and diplomacy –to achieve shared goals for a more peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan that puts women at the center of our efforts,” said Salbi.

Several Afghan women also shared their personal stories about how U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has improved their lives.

“This was a rare opportunity for me, as an Afghan women, to be part about the positive results of the U.S. government's investment in the women of Afghanistan,” said Kabiri. “These discussions are especially helpful in making sure we are all working together to empower Afghan women.”

Read the original article on the U.S. Department of the State's Web site.

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Toward Effective and Inclusive Development in Today's Afghanistan: A Call for a Fresh Look at Donor Priorities and Strategies in 2010

According to the United Nations, 2009 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan.i The January 18th Taliban-sponsored bombings in Kabul suggest 2010 is not off to a much better start. Widespread corruption and immense poverty compound problems, pointing to mounting problems despite immense international investment--more than $20bn since 2001ii. As in the rest of the world, Afghanistan's women are more likely to live in poverty and be targeted for violence, and less likely to enjoy the benefits of national services or international aid. “There are two Afghanistans,” says Sweeta Noori, Women for Women International's Afghanistan Country Director, “The international community often sees one Afghanistan that is progressing and developing. Yet there is another Afghanistan that is violent, unstable, and very scary for women.”

Women, who are often the bellwether of society and the first people to cross the lines of conflict, should be prioritized in security and development efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Afghanistan, as well as devoted a greater share of investments to empower women from grassroots to grass-tops.

The status of women is increasingly accepted as an indicator of the overall stability and openness of a state—women are the bellwether of society. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in today's Afghanistan. As donors refine priorities in tackling enduring challenges to security and development in the country, we must look again at the trajectory of Afghan women, asking ourselves difficult questions about the efficacy of our efforts, whether or not our funds and efforts are reaching the people they are intended to help, and how we can readjust our focus to ensure that our approaches ensure the effective and inclusive development of a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan. We must commit ourselves not only to frontline discussions of war and troop levels, but also to backline issues of health and social, political and economic participation—the very issues that define the status of women.

Security and Development: A Direct and Incontrovertible Link

The security situation in Afghanistan is increasingly unstable. According to the UN, 40% of Afghanistan is still vulnerable to Talibaniii. The civilian death toll continues to rise, as do rates of violence against women. At the same time, Afghanistan is home to among the world's most extreme poverty levels. It is the 2nd poorest nation in the world, with over 42% of the population living in absolute poverty.iv Approximately 8.5 million people (37%) are on the borderline of food insecurity, and 7.4 million people – nearly a third of the population – are unable to get enough food to live active, healthy lives.v The case study of Afghanistan demonstrates how inextricably intertwined and mutually-dependent security and development are: without adequate security, there will never be a safe space for sustainable development. Likewise, poverty exacerbates tension, displacement and conflict, leaving people vulnerable to exploitation and extremists' demands.

The outlook for women is especially bleak. Afghanistan has the world's second highest maternal mortality rate and 7% of women die in child birth. That is one woman every 27 Furthermore, the UN reports that 80% of women are affected by domestic violence. Rape has become an everyday occurrence. Women who attempt to participate in public life are consistently threatened and attacked. Female politicians, journalists, and even women and girls seeking education are assaulted and sometimes killed.vii Despite a 25% parliamentary quota for women's seats, would-be female candidates sustain threats and worry that contending for this year's parliamentary elections could cost them their lives or family members.viii Women who seek the vote are also intimidated—Noori describes entire communities where women were unable to visit the polls in the August elections while men and boys as young as twelve voted “for” them. Furthermore, says Noori, elected female politicians are paraded about as “window dressings,” often purely cosmetic indications of women's political participation.

International Assistance: More Direct Investment in Women Needed

Despite tremendous international investment in Afghanistan, crippling poverty, instability and unsanitary conditions prevail.ix Closer examination of existing aid patterns reveals an estimated 40% of aid goes back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries – some $6 billion since 2001.x Between aid flight and widespread corruption, little aid reaches the ground—security and lack of infrastructure prevent further obstacles, with rural areas rarely benefiting from international assistance. Of the small sum that reaches poor Afghans, even less reaches the most vulnerable people at the bottom of the social pyramid: women and children.

Although programs like the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) are beginning to address these problems by diverting funds from Kabul to the provinces, there is still insufficient support for women. Although 10% of NSP funds and a few provincial council positions that disseminate those funds are reserved for women, often intimidation of female candidates prevents those seats from being filled and the funds are spent elsewhere. As Noori says, “the NSP is good, but not for women.”

Recommendations for Donors

Security and Development

As donor countries step up military investment in Afghanistan in the name of security, we must also remember that civilian-led development efforts are equally critical--and complementary--to that effort. Afghanistan's most immediate needs are not national governance and policy reforms; it is the urgent interventions to help starving and impoverished Afghans, especially in rural areas and vulnerable communities such as women and children: 42% of Afghans are poor and 37% are hungry. This is the crisis of the day, and experts on the ground such as Noori know that the focus needs to be a long-term focus on community-level economic development and security. Investment is critically needed in comprehensive rural development, including market-based vocational skills training for women. Recognition of the interdependence of security and development should not equate a militarization of aid however; civilian humanitarian and development experts should be equally empowered. The military should invest in security and military training activities while civilian aid agencies specialize in development efforts such as building infrastructure, services, and local capacity.

In both of these critical arenas, a gendered approach is paramount to success. As mothers and caretakers, women have their fingers on the pulse of society and reinvest up to 90% of their income in the family. As leaders, they are often the first to cross lines of conflict to come together for common good. Afghan women must be able to access knowledge and leadership opportunities and to inform debate at all levels of the economy and society. Development strategies must empower women from the grassroots to the grass-tops, with equal investment in microfinance, vocational skills training and healthcare, as well as building women leaders and ensuring women are present at the negotiating table across the board. Security strategies must be committed to providing protection to women in public and private life, from schoolgirls, to voters, to members of parliament.

International Assistance

Existing foreign aid to Afghanistan needs urgently to be reformed. In order to combat corruption and ensure that assistance reaches Afghans, further monitoring and decentralization of aid-flows is needed. Models like that of the National Solidarity Programme that attempt to decentralize assistance should be scaled, but also should ensure that earmarks exist for local women's programs and that those flows are monitored and evaluated effectively. More money should be directed to women and girls: instead of 10% of the funds, programs like the NSP should allocate a minimum of 25% of their development money to women, who are known to reinvest in families and communities. Furthermore, donors must ensure local leadership like the NSP provincial councils actually do represent women as well as men. Incentives and conditions could be imposed to mandate the inclusion of women in local councils and the national government, ensuring women are safe and quotas are fully implemented.

The Promise of Inclusive Development

Nearly a decade ago, when international focus first shifted to Afghanistan, civil society leaders such as Noori had hope that a new window would be opened for social, political and economic empowerment for women and for all Afghans. For this hope to be realized, we must refine our approaches, ensuring that new strategies are inclusive, transparent, and more effectively promoting the long-term peace and prosperity of Afghanistan.


  1. UNAMA. “UNAMA calls for safety first, as civilian casualties rise in Afghanistan rise by 14% in 2009,” January 2010.
  2. “Q+A-Does aid money reach Afghans?” 09 Sep 2009 Source: Reuters
  3. Bergen, Peter. U.N. map shows that 40 percent of Afghanistan is vulnerable to Taliban, Foreign Policy, August 2009.
  4. UNDP. Human Development Report 2009; OHCHR, Silence is Violence, July 2009.
  5. WFP. Afghanistan. 2010,
  6. Leidl, P. Dying to Live: Maternal Mortality in Afghanistan, UNFPA, July 2006.
  7. OHCHR. Silence is Violence, July 2009.
  8. Ibid.
  9. U.S. Commercial Service. Doing Business in Afghanistan, 2007.
  10. Waldman, Matt. Falling Short, Oxfam, March 2008.
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In the Words of Sweeta Noori: An Afghan Woman's Plea

By: Sweeta Noori, Women for Women International-Afghanistan Country Director, First published in The Huffington Post

My life has not been particularly long—I'm only 36—but already I have been a daughter, a mother, a leader, a war-survivor and three-times a refugee.  As an Afghan woman I look back on my time on this earth and already I can see how much has changed for Afghanistan, even in so short a time.  As the Obama Administration looks to the future and considers how it will define itself and its policy in the region, I give pause to reflect on the past 36 years of a nation perennially and tragically embroiled in conflict and instability.  Looking back, I see that for the women of Afghanistan, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The time has come to invest fully and continually in the women of Afghanistan, prioritizing their rights, recognizing their role in the economy and society, and developing their potential as agents of peace and stability.  Development in Afghanistan should not just serve as a justification for military activity; it should be expanded, empowered, and strategic, including and leveraging women across the board.

Sweeta Noori, Country Director of Women for Women International-Afghanistan reflects on the turbulent and violent history of Afghanistan's past from the Mujahiddin's rule to the Taliban's terror, as she intimately knew it.

This has never been the case for as long as I can remember.  I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1973, into a family and an Afghanistan in which women's education was possible. It was the same year that former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan, a man whose progressive politics and pursuit of modernity inspired him to encourage women's education and protect their human rights, established a republic and became the first president of Afghanistan. My mother was a woman of the times: she was a doctor and a professor who for seven years served as the chairperson for the Kabul Institute of Medicine. My father, a police general in the Afghan army, was supportive of us as we sought education and careers. 

Following in my mother's footsteps, I adored school and applied myself so that I might also become a doctor one day.  But as I have seen so many times in the history of my country, nothing was certain, especially for women. New political currents would render old ideas obsolete; new regimes would fight for and consolidate power, leaving Afghans to adapt and adjust to a new social landscape once again. 

Both my earliest and my most recent memories of Afghanistan are of foreign soldiers.  The guns Americans carry today give my stomach the same twinge of dread as they did when I was a little girl staring up at Soviet weapons.  The Soviet era was one of occupation and the breeding of revolution.

The Mujahidin insurgency brought the end of Soviet rule and a new and uncharted future for Afghanistan.  When the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, I remember the celebrations of a people who thought the rise of the Mujahidin meant peace.  But the culture of violence that was established at the front traveled with the fighters as they captured Kabul.  There was always the staccato of gunfire and explosions.  Mountain warriors became city warlords battling for turf in close quarters where civilians bore the brunt of the violence.  People were terrified to leave their homes even as they were obliged to stand in line for hours to receive meager food rations. It was a time of desperation.

In 1992 the political became even more personal—I was forced to halt my medical studies in my third year, as women's participation in the public sphere and the economy were expressly forbidden. I said goodbye to medicine and hello to new and ill-fitting clothes.  It was mandated that women moving outside the home had to wear the shalwar (long pants worn under the skirt) and chadar (long scarf). Our wardrobes were as unprepared as we were-- my mother and I had no such dress on hand, so we were at first forced to fashion them out of household drapes and other fabrics. With the rest of our sisters, we adapted to a new reality.

Over time my family became exhausted by constant violence and shooting. We fled to Rawal, Pakistan in 1992, leaving behind all of our possessions, even my beloved pen collection and cherished childhood doll. It would be four years before I could return home, and when I did I would find nothing as I remembered it. This was my first refugee experience.  In time, I would have to flee to Pakistan a second time, and ultimately, to the United States.

1996 was the year of my first return to Afghanistan.  It was also the year of the Taliban.  They captured Kabul after sweeping through southern Afghanistan, touting themselves as peacemakers and providing a welcomed relief from the violent years under the Mujahedeen rule. Billed as a return to core Islamic principles, the Taliban regime implemented a heavily restrictive, fundamentalist, and patriarchal interpretation of Islam that rendered Afghan women far less free and empowered than before.  Modernity was spurned, progress shunned.  Access to education remained out of reach for me and my Afghan sisters; women were not allowed to leave the house by themselves and were relegated to the position of animals, forced to walk behind, rather than next to, our husbands.  I withdrew inside the home, where I did not wear the burqa and could do as I pleased.  Inside the relative security of my own home, I taught English to other women, a crime and a heresy at that time but a personal duty to my sisters and my sole source of stimulation. 

On September 11th, 2001, two towers fell halfway around the world, and within three months so too did the Taliban to the invading United States and allied forces in Afghanistan. The terrorist attacks of September 11th were shocking to my family and fellow Afghan citizens. We prepared once again for invasion. The Americans came.  The Taliban scattered.  There was talk of democracy and free elections, of a new beginning.  Again nothing was certain.  But there was hope.

I poured myself into reconstruction.  I served as an assistant for the Chair of the Loya Jirga Commission, which helped to form the interim administration and new constitution for Afghanistan.  I have continued to work for the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan ever since.  In my current role as Country Director for Women for Women International- Afghanistan, I direct programs that have helped more than 35,000 women since 2002 by providing direct financial assistance, rights education, vocational skills training, and micro credit loans. In July 2004, I launched one of the country's first micro-credit lending programs targeting women, which has since disbursed over $11 million to approximately 47,500 women while maintaining a 95% repayment rate.  

There is no denying that this is progress.  But with every gain enormous obstacles persist.  We have 25% women in parliament but conservative extremists retaliate, threatening the brave women who do seek leadership.  We are building bridges and schools every day but women are not safe enough to walk across alone, nor are girls sure that they will not be attacked if they dare to fill the schools. 

In my discussions with Afghan women, security continues to be a primary concern, in addition to limited access to resources.  In our 2009 Afghanistan Report, Women for Women International found that women think the government should address the security situation first (66%), followed by economic and political problems (20%) and access to social services, such as healthcare and education (9%).  These are real challenges in Afghanistan, and the women are calling for their resolution.  They're talking about—and voting for—peace, development and education.

I am reminded each day how these women's empowerment is critical to the survival of our nation.  Women work tirelessly to feed and clothe their families, to educate girl and boy children, to build and maintain peaceful communities.  And they're optimistic despite the greatest of odds.  In fact, our report found that over 80% of women polled are optimistic for the future of Afghanistan, which tells me that investing in women makes everything possible, even in a country without much cause for hope left.  The important thing is to cultivate this optimism, to invest in women and in peace so that this fledgling trust is not squandered.  The recent move to consider legislation that would restrict the movement, development and human rights of Shia women is a worrying indication that we are not heading in this direction.  We must protect and empower the women of Afghanistan.  We must stop using their rights and status as a political mechanism that can be dangled and withdrawn at whim. 

About Sweeta Noori

Sweeta Noori is the Country Director of the Afghanistan chapter of international humanitarian and development assistance nonprofit organization Women for Women International. Born in Kabul in 1973, Noori has survived many regime changes and social shifts in her homeland, from the Soviet occupation, to the mujahidin, to the Taliban, to today's fledgling democracy. In her work as Country Director of Women for Women International-Afghanistan (2002-present), she has assisted over 20,000 women in her country with financial assistance, rights education, and vocational skill straining. She was instrumental in launching one of Afghanistan's first microcredit lending programs targeted to women, which has disbursed over $11 million to approximately 47,500 women, maintaining a 95% repayment rate.

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Women for Women International-Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori returns from Afghanistan, urges members of Congress to support Afghan women

Washington DC — Arriving in Washington following a month-long tour of Afghanistan, Women for Women International's Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori testified on Capitol Hill last week, urging Members of Congress not to forget Afghan women as they shape U.S. policy in the region. 

Calling for investment in women's rights, education and economic empowerment, Noori briefed Members of Congress, their staff, media and the general public on the current situation of Afghan women, which she characterized as dismal.  In a panel hosted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus's discussion forum, "Afghanistan: A Road Map for Progress," Noori posited that for the vast majority of women in Afghanistan, there has been no progress and no justice for gender-based discrimination and violence, despite oft-touted improvements at the top.

Back from a month-long trip around Afghanistan, Sweeta Noori, Country Director of Women for Women International-Afghanistan stresses the need for the U.S. government to dedicate more resources to Afghan women, many of whom live on the margins of poverty and suffer from extreme discrimination.

"There are two Afghanistans," she explained, "The United Nations, U.S., and the international community see one Afghanistan that is progressing and developing. Yet there is another Afghanistan that the international community does not see. It is violent, unstable, and in many ways very scary for women." 

Improvements for elite women in Kabul and major cities, where there is a quota for 25% women in Parliament and women move more freely outside the home, does not constitute progress for the majority of Afghan women, who live in rural areas and are daily subjected to domestic violence and astoundingly high maternal mortality rates. 

In fact, Noori said, since the US invasion and the fall of the Taliban, domestic violence has increased, and women are no further along in their ability to make decisions in their homes or communities.

Throughout her month-long journey throughout Afghanistan, Noori met with various women who are themselves victims of domestic violence and remain excluded from the public sphere, without access to employment, education, or adequate healthcare. Out of desperation, Noori told the CPC, many of these women resort to self-immolation, or burning themselves in protest. Noori also stressed the dire consequences counter-narcotic poppy-eradication programs pose for women as farmers with no alternative means of income resort to archaic traditions, selling their daughters in forced and child marriage to drug lords in order to repay their debts.

Sweeta Noori joins a long line of other distinguished panelists in the six-part discussion series on Afghanistan, including Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness; General Paul Eaton, commander of Iraq's security forces; Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff; and Hekmat Karzai, director of Kabul's Peace and Security Centre.  Noori's recommendations were incorporated along with other panelist testimony in a letter from CPC Co-chair Congressman Raul Grijalva and CPC member Congressman Michael Honda to fellow Members and the White House calling for increased civilian development funding and attention to women's issues in Afghanistan.

Noori's testimony comes on the heels of the release of Women for Women International's 2009 Afghanistan Report, part of the organization's Stronger Women, Stronger Nations report series, which seeks to amplify the voices of grassroots women in conversations regarding Afghanistan's future as a nation. Based on the survey of 1,500 women in Afghanistan, the organization found that Afghan women are well-informed about the needs of their communities and their country, and call for increased security as well as economic and political stability.  66% of women polled gave security the highest priority, followed by economic and political problems. When asked about their biggest day-to-day problems, 41% responded with a lack of important basic commodities, and 26% indicated their primary need was for sufficient employment opportunities.

Sweeta Noori, who has returned to Washington D.C. indefinitely due to security concerns, is available for comment on the status of Afghanistan and Afghan women as documented through her most recent field visit.  For further information, contact Lyric Thompson at or 202.449.9440. 

About Sweeta Noori

Sweeta Noori is the Country Director of the Afghanistan chapter of international humanitarian and development assistance nonprofit organization Women for Women International. Born in Kabul in 1973, Noori has survived many regime changes and social shifts in her homeland, from the Soviet occupation, to the mujahidin, to the Taliban, to today's fledgling democracy. In her work as Country Director of Women for Women International-Afghanistan (2002-present), she has assisted over 20,000 women in her country with financial assistance, rights education, and vocational skill straining. She was instrumental in launching one of Afghanistan's first microcredit lending programs targeted to women, which has disbursed over $11 million to approximately 47,500 women, maintaining a 95% repayment rate.

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Statement from Zainab Salbi, CEO, Women for Women International on the Shiite Personal Status Law of Afghanistan

By: Zainab Salbi, founder, Women for Women International, First published in The Jurist

Throughout Afghanistan's history, negotiations over women's status and rights in Afghan society have occurred largely in the context of political struggles to take power or to hold on to power. We can see from President Karzai's recent authorization of the Shiite Personal Status Law--a move pleasing to a conservative minority with whom he was unpopular--that for women, very little has changed about this tradition in Afghanistan.

The law is currently under review by the state's Ministry of Justice, but remains a worrying precedent and a palpable threat to the advancement of gender equality and justice in Afghanistan.  If upheld, the measure will subject women of the Shia minority to restricted movement, mandatory marital sex, limited ability to seek work, pursue an education or visit the doctor without their husbands' permission and special regulation on matters like inheritance.

In response to the potential authorization of the Shiite Personal Status Law in Afghanistan, Zainab Salbi condemns it as a “threat to the advancement of equality and justice” and calls for greater realization of the critical role of Afghan women in rebuilding their society.

Women's rights in Afghanistan must be preserved and protected.  No action should be taken that further exaggerates the problem Women for Women International Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori calls the  "two Afghanistans": one in Kabul where women's rights are preserved as women gain more access to social, economic and political opportunities, and another where socially excluded and rural women are subject to a different set of rights and laws that restrict their socioeconomic development and often endanger their lives and violate their human rights. 

Issues like  forced marriage, self-immolation and honor crimes are still very real issues in this Afghanistan, and they threaten not only individual women but the ability of the nation as a whole to achieve stability, security and development, all of which are intimately interlinked.

Over 16 years working with women survivors of war has taught me that women's wellbeing is the bellwether of society. Restrictions on women's mobility and personal autonomy are detrimental not just at the household and community levels, but to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as well. The quality of life of a nation's women correlates directly with how the society fares overall--where women suffer, it is only a matter of time before entire communities are at risk. When women thrive across all sectors of society--including education and the economy--all of society benefits.

Any blueprint for sustainable peace risks failure without united, local- and national- level efforts to enact gender-equitable policies that dismantle--not construct--obstacles preventing women's full participation in society.  In a recent survey of 1500 Afghan women, Women for Women International found that the central government is believed to be more engaged on women's issues than local leadership. If the national government as a model rolls back women's rights, this hard-fought trust in central government will be squandered.  This would represent a real misstep in the nation's progress toward development of a healthy democracy.

The women of Afghanistan need access to economic opportunities, access to education in all levels and access to physical and psychosocial health services, without having to seek permission first.  They need to exercise their rights without threat of retaliation.  They need to be able to articulate their needs, both as individuals and as equal partners in decisions about the future of their society.  There can not be a prosperous, strong, economically healthy and democratic Afghanistan without having strong women in the nation who are fully part of shaping the society.

By their own accounts, if Afghan women can participate shoulder to shoulder with men in rebuilding their country, all of society will benefit. But for this to happen, all Afghan women must be able to exercise their human rights, regardless of religious or political affiliation.

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Zainab Salbi on President Obama's Cairo Speech, Engaging the Muslim World

By: Zainab Salbi, founder, Women for Women International, First published in CNN Commentary

The Cairo speech emphasized the full inclusion of women in education and economic opportunities in order to build stronger nations. Such training is the cornerstone of WfWI programs such as this one in Afghanistan.

Obama's tone paved the way for productive dialogue rather than accusation and defensiveness, which has been a historical pattern in U.S. messaging toward the Muslim world.  Rather than putting Muslims on the defensive regarding women's rights, Obama looked toward the future and said, as I often say, stronger nations cannot be built without the full inclusion of women and girls.

Particularly, I was pleased that the speech addressed the Muslim streets.  It acknowledged issues such as colonialism, stereotyping, the tension between democracy and authoritarianism, and economic opportunity.  He quoted the Koran, a few times, which was emotional for me and for many Muslims listening across the world.  He quoted the Koran in a spirit of respect, and referred to Muslim people as people of the books.  This is a compelling "we" rather than "you versus me" dynamic that he established. I think that this speech can pave the way for anew paradigm of Judeo-Christian Islamic dialogue.

I was pleased to see the weight the speech gave to issues such as women's education and economic opportunity.  Foremost, he was respectful of Muslim women.  This respect enabled him to really push on critical issues for the advancement and the empowerment of women in the region.  Only 55% of Muslim women are literate is a very dangerous statistic. It's equally debilitating that for every 100 men in the Muslim world only 40 women work.  These issues are often overlooked in our diplomatic engagement with the region, so his incorporation of these issues about human development—women in particular—is incredibly significant and promising.  I think many men in the Muslim world did not expect Obama to address women's issues; the fact that he did is very significant. 

Similarly, the President's focus on economic opportunity in a region that is majority youth (percentages vary depending on if you define 'youth' as under 16 or 24) is important.  It signals, I believe, a major shift in U.S. foreign policy in the region towards investment in building those economic opportunities that will bolster social and economic development and build stronger states.

I just came from Iraq where you have 76% of Iraqi women we surveyed not sending their daughters to school. This is very dangerous. You can't talk about the future of Iraq if you don't address the crisis of girls not going to school. And the same with employment, there are no employment opportunities for Iraqi women.  In my work with my organization Women for Women International we are prioritizing job and livelihoods creation and training for women as a prerequisite for nation building.  The economy has been decimated in Iraq—all of the factories are closed, we import all of the food, down to the pickle, a staple of the Iraqi household.  This is an overwhelming obstacle for development, but it is simultaneously an opportunity for us to invent an inclusive economy that makes room for women entrepreneurs.  We are working to reestablish domestic markets for things like soap, linens and candles, and we're empowering women to be the producers.

President Obama has in this speech paved the way for a productive dialogue with the Muslim world that starts from mutually shared values of peace, human rights and development.  The next step is for us as a global community to avail ourselves of this opportunity and move forward together.  Women for Women International is working every day to further that dialogue and that partnership, linking sponsors in the West and globally with sisters working to rebuild their lives, families and communities in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We look forward to continuing to build stronger communities and a stronger, more developed and peaceful region, together."

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South Sudan

Independence Day for South Sudan- Toward Women-Led Peace and Prosperity

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

July 9, 2011 - Today, the world welcomes its newest country: the Republic of South Sudan. This new nation in the heart of Africa is the historic result of a peaceful, popular vote on independence, in which roughly 99% of people living in Sudan's southern regions elected to split from the Northern, Arab government that had ruled over them -- and engaged in a brutal civil war against them -- for decades. The legacy from Africa's longest civil war is chilling: 4 million displaced, 2 million killed and 2 million women raped. Provided for in the official peace accord that formally ended the war in 2005, this vote represented the first opportunity for southerners to articulate their own vision for the future, in peace.

Women experience war and peace differently from men. For women, war means mass displacement, the threat and often the grim reality of sexual violence, the loss of husbands and family members and resulting task of providing for families without formal skills or training for the task. For women, peace means less the signing of an armistice and more the resumption of life's core activities--jobs, feeding children, bringing up future generations free of violence. This is no different in South Sudan, where independence is an important symbol of peace, equality and the opportunity for men and women alike to determine their own destiny.

Independence celebrations in South Sudan

It's true. Women have been a tremendous force for peace and active architects of the new republic. 52% of the voters during the referendum were women, and many women returned to the South after years of displacement to take part in the historic vote. 60% of the families that returned to South Sudan to vote in the referendum were led by a single woman.

Despite relative exclusion from formal peace talks, women have campaigned tirelessly for their voices to be heard. Women's civil society groups organized around the peace talks and campaigned for a leadership role in the new government. Moving forward, the Constitution states that 25% of the seats in the legislature must be held by women, and as of 2010, 34% of the Southern Parliamentary seats are held by women. Research shows that governments with higher percentages of women in power correlate with decreased corruption and increased attention to humanitarian and development needs -- key priorities for a new country emerging from war and needing to build services, infrastructure and a peaceful future.

Security, development and education is timely agenda for South Sudan. True peace is yet to be achieved, and the new country ranks solidly among the bottom of global development rankings. Since the referendum results were announced, an unknown number of lives have been lost in fighting throughout disputed territories along the border between North and South. An estimated 113,000 people have been displaced in Abyei, a disputed border region, and at least another 73,000 more in South Kordofan, an area of Northern Sudan that has a high population of ethnic Southerners. Reports indicate that aerial bombings have killed civilians, as Northern forces use outdated, Russian-made Antonov cargo aircraft and roll bombs out of the back. Accuracy is almost impossible, and civilian deaths are common, if unintended.

Development indicators paint a similarly grim picture, particularly for women. The 2010 State Department Human Rights Report on Sudan points to violence and discrimination against women as a growing problem in the South. The new nation is home to the world's highest maternal mortality rate, roughly 80% female illiteracy, and widespread child marriage and female genital cutting.

A humble beginning, yet one marked by tremendous optimism for the future. For my colleague, agriculture trainer Rebecca Yar, the female farmers she works with in the Southern countryside are laying the groundwork for a self-sufficient country, creating much-needed sources of food and income in South Sudan's under-developed rural areas. Women are also educating future generations and caring for the sick -- in short, leading the development their new nation desperately needs. According to a UN report, enrollment in schools has increased threefold since before the 2005 peace agreement, and we know women are key to that effort.

On this Independence Day, there is much work to be done, and women can lead the way forward.

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Violence in Sudan Grows Ahead of South Sudan's Declaration of Independence

By: Karen Sherman, Originally published on

On the cusp of independence, South Sudan is growing rapidly more unstable.

South Sudan is emerging from the longest civil war on the African continent, which decimated infrastructure, whole villages and all economic institutions.

As it struggles to rebuild, a dramatic increase in violence at all levels of society, tribal, roving militias, revenge killings, leaves Southern Sudanese grateful to survive each day.

The violence is not limited to the North-South conflict that has continued for years. It is deeply embedded in the history of this place, an unforgiving part of daily life.

It is increasingly evident that the North is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent the official declaration of Southern independence on July 9.

As we speak, Khartoum is working to isolate the South -- selectively bombing strategic areas, arming militias and inciting violence. Sudanese soldiers are moving north towards Rumbek from Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

And so it begins, again.

The price of fuel has skyrocketed in the South and is increasingly scarce. Fuel trucks at the North-South border are regularly turned away by government soldiers patrolling the area.

Power is regularly turned off in hotels due to fuel shortages. The cost of food has risen dramatically and can be difficult to find.

Many in the South think all-out war is inevitable and are preparing to fight.

On a recent trip to Rubek, Southern Sudanese people told me they are ready to die for independence. As one woman said, "I want my rights."

The concept of inherent, inalienable rights is one of the few things worth living for in a place where human life is undervalued, especially the life of a woman.

Women are increasingly victims of violence in South Sudan.

During a recent performance by a dance troupe made up of graduates of the Women for Women International program, one of the dancers received a cell phone call that her brother and his two wives had been pulled off of a bus and had their throats slit by the side of the road in what was described as a revenge killing.

At every turn it seems people here find themselves preparing for celebration only to find news of more violence, more loss.

In a separate incident of tribal violence, a man was beaten with a lead pipe by the side of the road. He was so mangled that our Women for Women International staff initially thought they were beating a dog.

The man later died on his way to the hospital.

These are not isolated examples, but daily occurrences. Armed militias roam the streets as twilight approaches, and the red dirt roads become unsafe to travel.

Men and boys with guns walk the streets, both protectors and predators. No one wants to be out after dark.

Women in South Sudan are ready to move to escape the violence. Their bags packed at all times in case they need to leave quickly.

Women will again be the ones to rebuild life for their families, finding food, building new shelters, caring for the children.

They will practice self-reliance, work together and support each other, which is what women around the world do best.

This past January, graduates of our Women for Women International program left their homes outside of Rumbek due to fighting and insecurity.

They moved to Yirol, another county in the Lake States, traveling by foot for days carrying only their most important possessions, among them their graduation certificates from our programs.

I met these women gathered under a large shade tree to block the harsh sun.

Since coming to Yirol, they joined other local women to start small businesses to earn an income.

Some women were doing embroidery, others cultivating small plots of land, a few opened a cafe in the center of town.

Most of the women are saving money, something rare when living hand to mouth but heavily emphasized in our training program.

The money is saved in a "black box," away from their husbands, only for emergencies.

Women were making mud bricks to construct small dwellings, working together to build one home at a time for each woman and her family.

One woman told me that she was "proud to be a woman, even if the men don't think we are important."

As the men fight, these women are prepared to build an independent nation in South Sudan. There is a fragile peace declared in South Sudan. But will this July bring the world's newest country, or yet another war?

This article originally appeared on on June 4, 2011.

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Status of women must be addressed for lasting peace in Sudan

By: Lyric Thompson, Originally published on The Jurist – Washington, D.C.

Last week Sudan celebrated an ironic anniversary. In name only, it was the fifth anniversary of peace - specifically, the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), the official armistice signed to end one of Africa's longest-running civil wars in 2005. The CPA was supposed to signal the end of a war that is estimated to have displaced 4 million and claimed the lives of over 2 million, infamous for a brutal campaign of rape. Yet residents of Africa's largest country know today's Sudan is far from peaceful.

In her remarks on the anniversary, US Secretary of State Clinton stated that, “[v]iolence in the South is rising and tensions continue in border areas,” estimating that 2,500 people had died and 350,000 been displaced in 2009 alone. Meanwhile, a senior adviser to President Omar al-Bashir sounded an ominous prediction, proclaiming war would be the result of next year's referendum that may well end in Southern secession.

In addition to outright violence, today's Sudan is also plagued by food insecurity, with more than 6 million people dependent on food aid. And President Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, a development that was greeted with the government's expulsion of 13 major aid groups providing critical assistance to the many hungry and displaced Sudanese.

So what is the American plan for Sudan? How will America work to quell the fighting and empower the grassroots movement for peace? Thankfully, President Obama has pledged to "confront the serious and urgent situation in Sudan." Last year, the Obama Administration released a carrot-and-stick strategy for the country that critically focuses equally on the obstacles to peace in the West and in the South, prioritizing both the crisis in Darfur as well as the implementation of the CPA. The US efforts should further focus on the main challenges impeding peace, including critical development issues such as land administration, water availability, oil sharing and lack of infrastructure. If unresolved these issues threaten to compromise the country's coming referendum, which we continue to hear may provoke another war.

There is increasing discussion on these points. Yet there is one tremendous gap in the policy discussion that has yet to be addressed: gender. From the unveiling of last year's Sudan strategy to last week's anniversary remarks, a gender agenda for peace in Sudan is absent. In a country where the violence of war has been profoundly gendered and a majority of the population engaged in civil society efforts to rebuild is female, this seems shortsighted.

This is nothing new, although it is something of a surprise in an administration that has from the beginning established gender as one of its key priorities, from the establishment of the White House Council on Women and Girls to the naming of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. The White House must remember that women are more vulnerable to displacement and violence in conflict, and yet have been historically excluded from peace negotiations. From Liberia to Rwanda, women on the continent have demonstrated their vested interest in and powerful action on peace and security. Yet during the landmark signing of the CPA, Sudanese women were underrepresented and have continued to face social exclusion and some of the worst violence to date after the war. As Washington turns toward Khartoum in the critical year ahead, will the women again be forgotten?

This article originally appeared in The Jurist on January 6, 2010.

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Regardless of Election Outcomes, We Need to Invest in Women

By: Judithe Registre

I recently went attended a friend's wedding in Kenya. I was excited to return to east Africa, not only because I would be part of the wedding and see old friends, but also because I would be traveling to Sudan. I've been aching to see Sudan and the women participating in "Women for Women International's program there. I was particularly interested to visit Sudan as it gears up for the National Presidential Elections ahead of the Referendum in 2011, in which the southern part of the country will vote to determine whether it will remain part of the unified Sudan state or whether it will separate. Much to my disappointment, I was unable to travel to Sudan due to security concerns.

For Sudanese women, peace means greater investment in women to farm their land and to send their children to school.

What do the elections mean for the women that we serve in Sudan? Women in Sudan are faced with extreme challenges. Female illiteracy rate hovers at 90%, only 36% of girls in Sudan are enrolled in primary school. Early marriage is widespread and the maternal death rate is among the highest in the world. With their current lack of access and rights to land and property, the women of Sudan are hopeful that the polls this Sunday will bring new opportunities and much needed progress. For the first time in almost a quarter of century, the people of Sudan are being given the opportunity to play an active role in the selection of public officials. The concept of democracy can be problematic in a place like Sudan, but for the average Sudanese woman, going to the polls marks a significant political and social step forward within their society to use their voices in casting the votes.

For the women that we serve, expectations are minimal – women desire access to clean water, land, and education for their children, Women want security, protection and the ability to cultivate crops. What the elections offer is an opportunity to create a supportive environment to enable the entrepreneurial development of the people. The women and the people of Sudan are hungry for change. Change for them means food, education, protection and security.

Regardless of the election's outcomes, the needs of the Sudanese women we serve do not change. They are asking for the opportunity to create and facilitate a social environment that encourages free movement, entrepreneurship and access to markets that will enable women to be even more productive in their efforts to support the development of their families and communities.

We place so much hope in governments and invest so many resources into them--as we should--but we often forget to do the same with the people, especially with women. To build strong nations, we need to invest in women. Good governance benefits significantly from an engaged and active citizenship. As citizens, women cannot be engaged and active if they are hungry, powerless and vulnerable. So what Sudan needs, both now and after the upcoming elections, is investment. We need to invest in developing Sudan's women by supporting their skill-building, which will in turn encourage the nation's economic development.

Women, in the context of Sudan, have suffered severely and continue to suffer today. We need to support them and their ongoing efforts to ensure the progress of Sudan as a whole. Yes, one of the soundest strategies is the development of Sudan's most marginalized citizens, women and children. The Sudanese people crave deliverables that will translate into real progress and development.

Supporting women will contribute to the foundation of a strong and dynamic civil society, from economic development and to the creation of education and infrastructure. We can build and strengthen the country's women and its vulnerable population as whole.

Investments from the international community intended to encourage the development of Sudan through the empowerment of women protect the interests of the majority of the population. It is not a matter of personal gain. Women are already actively involved in rebuilding the country through the family and the community, but they lack the necessary resources and skills. With proper investment, the women of Sudan can be a driving force in rebuilding the devastated and war-torn Sudan. Regardless of the election outcomes, we need to invest in Sudan's women.

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Statement on Lubna Ahmed Hussein

Washington, D.C. - August 6, 2009 — The arrest and impending trial of Lubna Ahmed Hussein, a Sudanese woman who worked for the U.N., is a deplorable act. Lubna's arrest demonstrates just how urgently the world's women are in need of established, equal rights globally. Women for Women International fully supports Lubna's strength, courage and determination in waiving her U.N.-affiliated immunity in an effort to change the law for women in Sudan.

Sudanese women are powerful agents of change but for this to happen, they must be able to access their full human rights and social, political and economic participation.

It is shocking to hear the charges against Ms Hussein relate to her allegedly wearing "indecent" clothing. Ms Hussein says she was caught wearing trousers and risks being sentenced to 40 lashings. Although Sudanese courts have postponed trail, Lubna is brave and eager to make a stand for women's rights in Sudan by challenging the oppressive laws in court. "I don't know why they are [postponing trial]... I think they just want to delay the case."

Lubna is determined to waive her U.N. immunity and fight this case, all the way to the Sudanese constitutional court if necessary. She feels the law under which she is charged is discriminatory, oppressive to women and "against the constitution and sharia [Islamic law]". Lupna has defiantly challenged her opponents that "refer to the sharia to justify flagellating women because of what they wear" to " show me which Quranic verses or hadith [sayings of the Prophet Mohammed] say so. I haven't found them," Her bravery in waiving her immunity is truly admirable, and a model for women worldwide.

This case brings into sharp perspective the many obstacles that still prevent Sudanese women today from exercising their full human rights and participation in the public sphere, which Women for Women International is actively helping to change through our work on the ground. We believe that the well being of women like Lubna is the bellwether of society. Sudan faces myriad development challenges—conflict, poverty, drought and displacement among them—and it is only with the full inclusion and empowerment of Sudanese women that there is any hope of overcoming them. Women for Women International works with poor Sudanese women to give them rights education and job skills training that will help them become active citizens.

In the words of Rebecca, a WfWI-Sudan participant, "According to our culture, a woman has no right over her children especially during marriages. You get no benefits... Now I have farming plots initiated by WfWI-Sudan, and I get money from selling vegetables. Our [patriarchal] culture is very strong but I took my three children to school: one girl and two boys in school."

When women are informed of their rights and able to access them, they can be powerful agents of change. Women like Rebecca and Lubna are building the foundations for a peaceful, stable Sudan. They are feeding families, advocating for their rights, stimulating economic growth and educating children--but for this to happen, they must be able to exercise their human rights and full social, economic and political participation. Their rights must be preserved and protected. By their own accounts, if Sudanese women can participate shoulder to shoulder with men in rebuilding their country, all of society will benefit.

Brita Schmidt, Director of Operations for Women for Women International-U.K., was recently interviewed by the BBC regarding the charges laid against Lubna. Brita affirmed Lubna's courage and the need for women's rights to be upheld: "It has always taken a brave woman to stand up against oppression, and to say, in this case, "Why Can't I wear trousers?"" she said. "What Lubna is doing is incredibly brave, and women around the world need to back her and support her in saying: "No more."

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No Progress without Women: Rwanda's Journey to complete the Millennium Development Goals

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

June 21, 2011 -- Seventeen years ago last Sunday, the Rwandan genocide came to a bloody end. In one of the of the most horrifying 100 days in human history, inter-ethnic tensions stoked by political propaganda escalated into full-scale civil war between two tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Over the span of 100 days, more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The two major ethnic groups had lived peacefully for generations, but decades of colonial rule and exploitation built the foundations of tensions that ultimately reached a boiling point in 1994, fanned by radio campaigns inciting violence. Bands of Interahamwe, a group of Hutu rebels armed with machetes, roamed cities and the countryside, killing any Tutsi or Tutsi-sympathizer they encountered. People fleeing the slaughter sought refuge in schools, churches and other places of worship, assuming them to be safe havens, only to be massacred within. To this day, many of these buildings remain as they did during those 100 days, a reminder of the horror of war.

WfWI-Rwanda participants in the field.

As in many conflicts, women were particularly vulnerable, targeted for brutal sexual violence as a tool of war and instrument of genocide. Between 250,000 to 500,000 women are estimated to have been raped during the genocide. According to UN Special Rapporteur Rene Degni-Segui, "Rape was the rule and its absence the exception." The campaign of sexual violence had a devastating impact on the demographics of the surviving Rwandan population. An estimated 70% rape survivors were infected with HIV, and even more had lost their homes, friends and family members in the slaughter.

After the genocide, up to 70% of the surviving population consisted of women. Despite the scale of devastation the society had endured, these women took immediate action to set their country on the path to recovery. Among other activities, they began to clean the streets, rebuild homes and adopt children orphaned by the genocide. In spite of their own suffering, women got involved at the national and community levels to set their society back on track.

To this day, it has been women who led Rwanda out of the ashes of war and into a more peaceful and prosperous future, arguably more so than any other country in the world. Though it may have seemed impossible on this day in 1994, Rwanda has surged forward to make remarkable progress with regards to social and economic development. The country is currently one of the top performers in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of international development goals established by the United Nations in 2000. These goals set a benchmark for the world to gauge progress on key humanitarian and development issues, from the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, to universal primary education and promoting gender equality, to reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability for future generations. Rwanda has shown more progress in these areas to date than most nations, developing and developed alike.

Equally notable is the high incidence of women's participation in leadership roles throughout the country, a favorite case study in the cannon of research and studies linking women's equality with economic growth and stability. A recent UN Women Report documents Rwanda's competitive advantage when it comes to the status of women and overall development progress.

Rwandan women have the highest rate of political representation in public office in the world, standing at more than 50%. This critical mass in legislative bodies allows for women to institute many legal reforms focused on the female population. According to the UN Report, female Parliamentarians have worked to improve women's economic and inheritance rights, as well as pass laws that protect women from domestic violence and marital rape. Notably, Rwanda is one of only 52 countries that has legislation that criminalizes marital rape. Furthermore, as of 2010, 33% of ministerial positions in the government are held by women. According to Oda Gasinzigwa, Rwanda's Chief Gender Minister, "It's good to recognize us. There are a lot of achievements we have registered and the good performance is attributed to the political will. The leadership has trusted us to participate in all levels of development."

These statistics suggest that investment in women's equality and creating space for women's contributions in critical social, economic and political processes is a key to achieving broader human development goals. Increasingly, research shows that investing in women and working to achieve MDG 3 - gender equality - can truly be the key to achieving all 8 Millennium Development Goals. Consider the following:

According to the World Bank, "Greater economic and educational opportunities for women mean her daughters are more likely to go to school, her babies are more likely to survive infancy and her family is more likely to eat nutritious meals." That statement connects progress on MDGs 2, 4 and 1, respectively, all through investment in the mother. Also according to the World Bank, the children of educated mothers are 40% more likely to live beyond the age of 5 and 50% more likely to be immunized. That is direct progress on MDG 4. We also know that women are the stewards of and the closest to the environment (MDG 7), and they are the fastest-growing population infected with HIV/AIDS (MDG 6).

Returning to the Rwanda case study, we see women's engagement earning dividends across the board when it comes to development progress. Education rates in Rwanda have shown a marked increase. In 1991, only 57.9% of the population was literate, however, as recently as 2009, the literacy rate has exceeded 70%. There has also been a significant increase in the number of children attending primary school. Currently, 87.6% of school aged children are enrolled in primary school, and, must notably, the ratio of boys to girls in primary and secondary education is equal; a significant development with regards to gender equality.

There have also been noteworthy improvements in public health. Life expectancy has increased from a mere 27.1 years following the genocide to over 50 years in 2009. Rwanda has also taken significant strides in reducing maternal mortality. In 2000, the maternal mortality rate was 1071 per 100,000 live births, however, in 2010 they achieved a rate of 383/ 100,000 live births. If this improvement continues, Rwanda will be one of the few countries able to complete MDG 5, which is aimed at improving maternal health.

Women have hence made significant strides in Rwanda, bringing their nation along with them. Yet the work is not yet done. As in many post-conflict countries, gender violence has outlived the conflict that exacerbated it. In 2009, a police report revealed that every six hours, a women was raped. To its credit, the Government has worked in a coordinated effort with women's organizations to address the issue. Working together, government and civil society groups have waged public awareness campaigns in the media, developed community policing programs, and drafted a policy to explicitly criminalize violence against women beyond the provisions of preexisting national penal code. There has been a welcome and significant drop in the number of gender based violence cases reported in the wake of these interventions: 1,345 cases were reported in 2010, compared to 2,033 in 2006. However, despite this significant decrease, sexual violence still remains a problem with over three cases being reported everyday in 2010. With a sustained level of commitment to developing and implementing the kind of policy and programmatic responses that will continue to combat this problem, there is reason to hope that more progress is to come.

This anniversary, we celebrate the beacon of hope that Rwanda's unlikely turnaround provides. The nation's post-conflict recovery process proves a powerful point: that impoverished, war-torn countries can not only recover, but lead the way forward in global development progress. We celebrate its wholesale embrace of women's equality and leadership as not only the right thing to do, but also a winning development strategy effective in bringing all people out of poverty and into a more peaceful, prosperous future. As we look forward to 2015, when the world will evaluate progress on the lofty goals it has set for itself, Rwanda emerges as an unlikely -- and welcome -- contender for first place.

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