After over 40 years of war, Afghanistan finds itself at a crossroads. On February 29, 2020, the United States signed a security agreement with the Taliban, leading to the partial withdrawal of American military forces, and opening the door for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Any successful deal will likely include a power sharing agreement, which will bring the Taliban into a new Afghan government. This expected power sharing arrangement has prioritized issues of women’s rights in local and international peace efforts. After the brutal suppression of women during its five-year rule from 1996-2001, the Taliban now asserts it supports women’s rights “granted by Islam.”1

The Women Activities and Social Services Association (WASSA) has been at the forefront of promoting and advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Going forward progress is likely to demand dialogue with new players, such as Taliban representatives, ex-combatants, and rural religious scholars. These stakeholders may not initially be open to WASSA’s advocacy. Over time, we believe there is both significant need for and substantial advantage offered by this type of engagement. In our judgment, WASSA is uniquely positioned to leverage its prior experience to lead during this next era in Afghanistan.

Since 2001, Afghan women have made significant strides in securing greater rights, economic participation, civic engagement, and political representation. Unfortunately, women have made far more progress in Afghanistan’s cities than in the countryside. The rural context remains religiously and culturally conservative, with extraordinary levels of female (and male) illiteracy, and traditional norms, such as the Pashtun code of honor (pashtunwali) still prevail.

WASSA has unique assets to take on these challenges. Its three centers (the Center for Civil Society Empowerment, the Center for Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding, and the Center for Legal and Social Protection) support civil society organizations, build local capacity to promote sustainable peace, and offer legal and psychological counseling to women. WASSA’s radio station, Radio Sahar, has over 60,000 listeners across five districts, and advances women’s rights through public service announcements and social programming. WASSA’s women only internet cafe in Herat city provides a safe space to learn new technologies and skills.

Since 2006, WASSA has implemented 126 projects. The organization is currently working on seven projects, such as: CODE4FUN (a coding project for women and youth), a trauma healing initiative, the Afghan Woman Leadership Initiative, and several social reintegration projects for internally displaced persons and returnees. WASSA’s projects cross a wide breadth of regions and involve women from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

WASSA’s capabilities and projects can be organized across three broad categories: engagement (with the government, religious scholars, and men); education; and economic empowerment. Our five proposals leverage WASSA’s past experience and capabilities within these three frameworks while also highlighting new opportunities.

Our proposals are as follows:

-        New interview series and radio dramas for Radio Sahar which engage religious scholars and promote women’s rights within Islam;

-        Entrepreneurship and skills training to facilitate economic empowerment;

-        Peacebuilding training for women serving on Provincial Peace Committees and Community Development Councils;

-        Reintegration for ex-combatants and host communities which leverages WASSA’s current reintegration project for internally displaced persons;

-        And male allyship development to enhance community support.