In Afghanistan, implementors embrace a stakeholder-centric approach to overcome policy challenges to gender equity. Technical specialists and local government officials agree that accountability and local ownership are crucial elements of this model.

Policy reform and implementation are always a challenge for donors and implementing partners. In transitional states, this process is even more complicated by shifting incentives and priorities. A facilitative approach can overcome these challenges. We have witnessed this in Afghanistan, where the right balance of coordination and direct technical assistance is accelerating reforms to promote gender equity and social inclusion.

Equity Policy Reforms Transform Society

The women of Afghanistan have historically — especially under the Taliban and the past 41 years of war — faced tremendous obstacles to social inclusion and equity. To this day, many government policies do not adequately account for the needs of women. According to Fazlullah Mohammadi, the director of Afghanistan’s National Disabled Institute, “For women to work outside, training and societal support is not enough; there should be a bonding to glue these two together, and that tool is … the policy element, which eases and protects women in the workplace.”

The effectiveness and sustainability of policy reforms, however, requires local stakeholders to be firmly in the lead. To overcome policy-related challenges, USAID Promote: Women in Government (WIG) leverages relationships with more than 70 Afghan government counterparts to develop and implement key policy reforms that empower women working in the government, including non-discrimination, anti-harassment, and other working standards that foster a female-friendly workplace.

Collaborating with Government While Holding Them Accountable

With so many stakeholders, inter-ministerial coordination and government-wide standardization are essential, especially in an environment where many government entities have independent policy-making authority and implementation is severely uneven. To successfully operationalize these policies in a sustainable way, WIG follows four principles.

Invest in local leaders. To resolve coordination challenges and accelerate policy reform and implementation, WIG worked with three main partners — the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled, and the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission — to organize three policy working groups. Each lead ministry chairs its respective working group comprised of roughly 30 line ministries, independent agencies, and civil society representatives, with WIG serving as secretariat.

Start and end with local solutions. WIG supports working group members to identify, develop, and own policy reform efforts. Policies are developed in coordination with civil society representatives who can ground truth them, thus ensuring that reforms respond to local realities. WIG plays a minimal role in policy identification. This highly facilitative approach places government partners firmly in the lead, with each working group collaborating to identify, develop, and implement policy reforms around capacity-building, public awareness, and workplace enablers for women in government.

Incentivize participation. WIG incentivizes participation in the working groups by offering targeted technical expertise and tactical advice to develop and operationalize policies. By leveraging project resources and international expertise, WIG ensures that the policy reforms identified through the working group model reflect international standards and best practices. Given the realities of policy implementation, WIG has also developed resources to operationalize policies once they are adopted. Standard policy implementation action plans and gender-responsive budgeting guidelines help to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Promote local accountability. Establishing sustainable mechanisms to hold government partners accountable is essential. Working groups function as an informal accountability mechanism, as members must report on their progress developing and implementing reforms. On the policy front, WIG recently supported the government to introduce a policy on increasing women’s participation in the civil service. This policy aims to provide appropriate facilities for women — including women’s washrooms, childcare facilities, and separate prayer rooms — and bring about safe work environments, encouraging a more equitable balance of men and women in the government. Importantly, the policy establishes a formal target of increasing the recruitment of women by two percent in Afghanistan’s civil service workforce every year.

Changing Policy Requires Building Societal Support for Women

For the Afghan government to successfully represent all its citizens, it must implement new policies that respond to the challenges faced by Afghan women, including harassment, violence, and discrimination. Changes expedited by the government translate into autonomy and opportunity to shape social, political and economic spheres — and most certainly to shape civil service for women. And that societal change is achieved with a fundamental transformation of one policy at a time.

In the words of Hamid Hamdard, human resources director at the Ministry of Economy, “This is not a favor, it is our responsibility to provide a safe and sound environment for our female colleagues. The best way to do that is by implementing good policies.”

This responsibility falls firmly on the shoulders of Afghan government policymakers. With the right approach, centered on local ownership and accountability, donors and implementing partners can accelerate the process to the benefit of women and sustainable governance.

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