The Bonn Conference and Why Women’s Voices Must be Heard

The Afghan Conference that begins today in Bonn could prove to be crucial for the future of women in Afghanistan.

Yet there are very few women among the 900 delegates taking part in the talks that mark the anniversary of the 2001 Bonn Conference, when Hamid Karzai was appointed president of Afghanistan and expectations were high about women’s futures.

10 years later, Afghan women can only wait anxiously for the outcome of the Bonn Conference, knowing that only one representative of Afghanistan’s human rights and civil society groups will be taking part in the discussions that have been boycotted by Pakistan and the Taliban.

“Everyone in Afghanistan is anxious for news, listening to the radio to find out what is going on,” says Sweeta Noori, Afghanistan country director for Women for Women International. “Women are really concerned that all the gains they have made in the last 10 years will go back and for them there will not be any hope for their future if the fundamental Taliban took the power back.”

During her visit to London last week Noori took part in meeting with Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East and south Asia, where he was urged to ensure women’s voices were heard during the talks and also ensure women’s interests in Afghanistan were safeguarded in two ways: by ensuring that all international aid reaches women and was “not going into the pockets of corrupt individuals” and that the international community closely observes negotiations and communication between the government and the Taliban.

Having lived through war and been a refugee three times, Sweeta Noori, who was born in 1973, has firsthand experience of how Afghan women’s lives and fortunes are affected by political turmoil and conflict.

Her work has also driven home the importance of education, which has begun to be more available to girls in recent years:

“When women come for the first time to our programme and we ask them how they feel about themselves, they say ‘we are disabled, we are blind’ not physically, but they think that they are because they are illiterate and don’t know any skills.”

Over 33,000 women have graduated in Women for Women International’s Afghan programme since 2002. All women receive vocational training and are taught about their rights and the role they can play in their families and communities.

The success stories Noori tells reflect the principles of the original programme set up by the organisation’s founder, Zainab Salbi in Bosnia in the wake of the war, of moving women from the status of victim to survivor to strong citizen.

Some of those success stories include Zarghoona who endured more than 18 years of abuse after she was given away by her father aged six to marry an eight-year-old boy to resolve a dispute.

But six years after joining the year-long Women for Women International programme where she learnt handicrafts she has gone on to use her skills and run a successful business employing 500 people.

Another woman, Shopaire, was rejected by her community in Wardak province but went on to run a bakery there. The extent to which she had gained the respect of her community was demonstrated by their decision to name the business after her when she was killed in a car accident.

“This shows how an individual woman can bring about change – that a community that had once decided to kick her out decided to do this,” says Noori, adding that she has seen positive changes among men as they realise how important it is that their wives, daughters and sisters can contribute to the family’s economic status:

“They watch us and after three months, when they see the positive changes that occur within their families, they become our supporters.”

Women for Women International has further challenged traditional attitudes towards women in Afghanistan by setting up a training programme for male leaders: over 1,200 men, including 400 Imams, have taken part.

The prospect of the Taliban regaining power is already beginning to cast a shadow over women’s lives, however.

“Sometimes we have received some threats, there were some rumours that the Taliban was around, and wanting to stop us,” says Noori, adding that for now, at least, she has confidence that the leaders of the communities they work in will protect them.

“Of course there are risks but it’s important to realise that in Afghanistan, if you have the support of a community they will protect you and we hope that will help us to keep running our programme.”

But Noori knows that so much of what happens in the future hinges on whether Afghan leaders are prepared to sacrifice women’s rights in the search for a peace deal. Again, she stresses how vital it is that the international community ensures that women’s concerns are not only listened to but are reflected in the decisions made at the Bonn Conference:

“The important thing is that the words don’t remain on paper, that they should be implemented. It should be very practical, as this is the only way we can secure Afghanistan,” says Noori. “If everything goes wrong, it’s not only an Afghanistan matter, it’s a world matter, so if the international community wants to see a safe world, save Afghanistan.”

This article appeared on Huffington Post UK, 6 December, 2011