Since Afghanistan's momentous 100th anniversary of its independence last year, the national context has only gotten more complex. Between a hotly contested national election, ongoing peace negotiations, and a global pandemic, the future of women and their power can seem a precarious thing.
But if we support the power of women in Afghanistan, women not only weather these crises—many step up to lead and invest in the well-being of those around them. We know it because the past few months, we’ve seen the leadership of Change Agents.
Since the Change Agents’ meeting with Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan, women’s safety, health, economic security, and the advancement of their rights and equality have come back under threat. Change Agents are using the leadership and advocacy skills they’ve learned after graduating from training to protect women and continue to expand women’s opportunities even during training suspension.
Protecting Women’s Safety
Across the world, stay-at-home orders and rising levels of stress has also meant rising levels of violence against women. In places with gender discrimination, women’s safety often goes overlooked. Despite rights that should secure them, social norms sometimes allow violence against women to persist.
The strength Change Agents gained from going through the training program showed them women’s lives and safety are precious. And their further education in the Change Agents program helped them see that women’s spirits are strong — through their own strength.
Across different communities in Afghanistan, Change Agents have organized mediations to stop violence against women. They are trusted leaders fellow women can turn to who solve cases of violence. They collaborate with elders who are community leaders to intervene and secure justice for women and create safe environments for them.
Poverty plagues the communities we serve, and the pandemic has only exacerbated those conditions as livelihoods are interrupted. Food insecurity and lack of access to health resources, which are already issues, stretch families even thinner.
Change Agents recognized the risks to their communities and advocated for women’s needs. In the Has-e–Dowm district of Kapisa province, Change Agents met with the district leader. In their meeting, they stressed to promote awareness of COVID-19 and its prevention with the community. The leader agreed and helped Change Agents secure and distribute 500 masks and gloves to people in the province. In Nangarhar province, Change Agents worked with clinics to provide people soap and hygiene kits.
They’ve cultivated these relationships to provide sustained support for women in Kapisa. Later as food security became more dire, they referred women to the district leader.
60 women received food kits of flour, rice, oil, tea, and sugar thanks to their intervention.
In another district, Change Agents stood up for widows. Change Agents provided referrals to widows in their community for NGOs working by them to receive food kits. Some of the women received supplies that would provide long-term support, such as tailoring materials for their businesses and even a cow for five women in Nangarhar who could care for the animals.
As lockdowns start easing in Afghanistan, Change Agents have secured better economic opportunities for themselves and shared power with women around them. Across provinces, Change Agents and graduates got jobs as teachers and managing a local pharmacy. In contexts where many provinces, especially in rural areas, may still see women’s place as only in the home or create barriers to women’s employment, their financial inclusion paves the way for women and girls after them.
And Change Agents grow that opportunity in other ways. They refer women with literacy skills for jobs with the Department of Agriculture. For women who have agricultural enterprises, Change Agents work to broker deals that will allow women to purchase machines that dry fruit and vegetables at a discount with the Department of Agriculture, allowing them to expand their business offerings.
Advocacy and Awareness Trainings
Although the Women for Women International program was suspended, Change Agents continued to grow their skills and learning. Some attended or were invited to advocacy and peace workshops, deepening their understanding of how to build power in their communities. 60 Change Agents and women in the community learned more about women’s rights to inheritance in Afghanistan and about the issues with forced marriage. Others learned more about giving birth—crucial in places where women’s health aren’t always a priority—and vaccination.
Besides also joining workshops about COVID-19, Change Agents conduct and lead trainings for people in their province about coronavirus. For example, a Change Agent organized a training for 160 people to learn more about the disease and how to prevent its spread.
Although the past few months made dropped more obstacles in women’s path towards equality in Afghanistan, Change Agents marched forward to clear the path. On this 101st Independence Day in Afghanistan, we celebrate the bright torch they carry even in dark times. We fan the flames of their leadership and impact, as they brighten the future for women’s own independence in Afghanistan.