Through artwork, women in Afghanistan share their experiences with gender-based violence and workplace harassment, increasing awareness about this worldwide issue.

The global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign calls for the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence (GBV). It takes place every year between November 25 and December 10, culminating on Human Rights Day. Human Rights Day celebrates universal rights — including the rights to life, liberty, and security — that are inherent to every person. GBV is considered one of the most pervasive human rights violations and a global pandemic. Rooted in discrimination and inequality, GBV disproportionately affects women and girls.

In Afghanistan, studies show that nearly 90 percent of women experience at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence in their lifetime. Roughly 60 percent experience multiple forms. Combatting these staggering rates of GBV requires an understanding of the underlying factors that allow the cycle of violence to endure. In Afghanistan, GBV is embedded in cultural norms and structural inequalities, making it challenging to transform.

The USAID Promote: Women in Government project (WIG) is addressing GBV inequalities  by working directly with the government of Afghanistan to increase the number of women in the Afghan civil service. One of the major obstacles to women’s work outside the home is the issue of widespread and persistent harassment — both in public and in the workplace. WIG supported the Afghan government to develop and adopt a new anti-harassment law, which defines harassment and provides legal penalties for offenders.

But the fight against harassment as a form of GBV requires more than legislation; it requires broad cultural awareness and social change. With the persistent threat of harassment, women in Afghanistan will continue to be underrepresented in public roles, limiting their participation in changing policy or ending discriminatory practices in the workplace. The WIG project has launched an art campaign to raise awareness of GBV and spark reflection.

Using Art to Tackle GBV

Art is a tool that can be used to raise awareness. Through their art, artists can depict their intimate experiences and share those experiences for interpretation in a public space. While a single work of art, or even a series of works, cannot translate the full impact of violence, art has power when it makes one stop to reflect upon its message.

WIG’s GBV advocacy campaign features artwork developed by the project’s female interns. WIG works with more than 3,000 women in Afghanistan to prepare them for careers in government. The artwork the interns developed focuses on GBV in all its forms — from physical violence to verbal harassment. Their works of art represent the often-unheard voices of the country’s women.

The process of producing the artwork has made an impact on the women who are able to express their personal experiences on a canvas for their community to see. “Art is expression of thoughts. Through colors and painting, we can exhibit hidden pains of Afghan women from different perspectives,” shares one of the young artists.

In addition to providing a therapeutic release, artwork has the power to reach those who may otherwise be excluded due to lower literacy levels. As one artist explained, “Even illiterate women will be able to read our paintings; it makes sense. Through art, we can provide women awareness about their rights.”

Increasing awareness also creates space for further discussion. Another artist said, “Paintings in a frame can have different meanings. Everyone can get meaning from it in their own way, and this difference will lead to discussion among women of Afghanistan. Afghan women believe in protection of their rights. We want to interpret our rights through art, so that women will get new concepts for discussion.”

One aspiration of the campaign is that it will create opportunities for dialogue regarding women’s rights and contribute to a community that is more resilient to combating workplace harassment. But the dialogue cannot be only for and among women, it must be inclusive to all genders and supported in workplaces. So, to unveil the works of art, WIG is holding an event today — International Human Rights Day and the end of the 16 Days of Activism — to emphasize that violence against women is a violation of their inalienable human rights. At the event, a range of government partners, local stakeholders, and media partners will view the artwork. In combination with anti-harassment messaging from the project’s interns, artwork from the campaign will be posted in the offices of WIG’s government partners. With nearly 70 government partners and offices in each of the project’s target provinces of Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Kandahar, and Nangarhar, the project will distribute thousands of posters to raise awareness around workplace harassment.

Ultimately, the hope is that this campaign supports efforts to combat workplace harassment. In one artist’s words, “I hope that my message is useful for other women who are working in government because I know every woman has her own problems, whether she is working at home, in an office, or any other place. I made this picture to motivate others, so they can find their own jobs, know their rights, and appreciate their full value.”

The use of artwork is a visible symbol that makes an individual problem a shared one. This calls for government partners to work together to combat GBV. While it is not a solution to solve systemic GBV, elevating the voices of these young women is one step forward in taking a stand against workplace harassment in Afghanistan.

Posts on the Chemonics blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.