Afghanistan faces many uncertainties and challenges, and no single event many thousands of miles from the difficulties on the ground can promise to transform the future and make all the difference.
Yet this is a moment in which the leaders of Afghanistan and the international community will make important choices. The commitments made in London could move Afghanistan forward in ways that improve the situation of ordinary Afghans, freeing them from lives of fear and chronic poverty.
Huge strides have been made
Ten years ago I worked in Afghanistan setting up aid programmes. Huge strides have been made since then – in 2002, an estimated 900,000 boys attended school, while women and girls were almost completely excluded from educational opportunities. Today, more than 8 million students are enrolled in school, including more than 2.5 million girls. But many of those are in urban areas, not in remote rural areas where attitudes to girls’ education remain highly conservative.
The organisation that I now work for, CARE International, has been on the ground in Afghanistan since 1961 – a source of immense pride among our staff who have worked for decades to improve lives and build trust and rapport with communities that are often extremely isolated and far removed from the geopolitical wrangling over the future of their country. The length of our operations in Afghanistan is a sobering indicator of how the country has been torn apart by war, blighted by food insecurity, floods, population displacement, drought and endemic poverty. During this time, the struggle for power has come at great cost for Afghanistan’s people.
No ‘easy wins’
The London event will both take stock of progress and review ways forward for Afghanistan. It must address those in remote communities where there are no ‘easy wins’. No issue better illustrates the need for local solutions to Afghan challenges than gender. Progress for women and girls in Afghanistan will never be made if efforts are perceived as foreign, imposed and inconsistent with the local values of communities.
Too often, debates over the position of Afghan women and girls in the family and the wider society have been shaped by external political agendas rarely reflecting the beliefs of ordinary Afghans themselves.
Listen to locals
Listen to locals is a simple message, but one that has not generally been heard in decisions on aid to Afghanistan over the past decade.
Basic education is a powerful catalyst for positive change in the lives of girls and women. But we have to work with, not against, the grain of local norms and institutions to enable girls to have an education. Massive progress can be made by working in this way. Over the past 20 years CARE has helped more than 120,000 students get an education by working with the local community so they view the school as their school – nearly 80,000 (66%) of these students are girls.
We work in scattered, chronically poor, and often very conservative communities where there is no formal government school, no precedent of education for girls and early marriage is common practice. And yet we have seen many instances in these communities where the parents and the elders take real ownership of a school by contributing the land or building schools themselves.
Engaging men and boys
In 2013, CARE surveyed over 2,000 women in Kabul, Balkh and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan. They told us that we need to work harder to engage men and boys in their communities if women are to thrive and realise their potential. This is essential to avoid backlash and mitigate men’s concerns that external agencies are working to undermine their authority. When we work to get the support of the whole community, we have seen men break the mould and become champions in support of girls education.
In one community where CARE works there was a young girl whose father had reluctantly let her attend school. When his wife fell ill she was the only member of the family who could read a note telling them where to find a doctor. The father was inspired, he saw how educating his daughter could help their whole family.
Long-term aid commitments
Emphasis on local solutions to Afghan challenges does not remove a responsibility from the international community to sustain its support. No man or woman, boy or girl, should go hungry this winter in Afghanistan. The past decade has brought grand promises from international institutions and powerful governments on how Afghanistan can be remade, while at the same time we know that it is only Afghans who can make their future.
It is more dangerous than ever to be short-sighted and turn away from the hard-earned gains – be they a remote community school that is now educating girls or efforts to work with widows so they can earn a living and no longer be shunned by their community. Anything less than long-term aid commitments that truly embed the voices of the local communities they seek to serve will risk undermining decades of hard-earned progress and failing the next generation of women in Afghanistan.
“Whatever would make her heart sing”
Recently, when visiting a remote class set in the shadow of a mountain in central Afghanistan, a father told my colleague that he wanted better opportunities for his daughter, a chance to live in peace, to choose a life for herself, a career, a family, “whatever would make her heart sing”. In a country of poets, so battered by conflict and disaster, hope and optimism remain.