Empowering Women and Cultivating Equitable Governance in Afghanistan

Dr. Susanne E. Jalbert | Robert Lord-Biggers
September 20, 2018 | 2 Minute Read
Democracy and Governance | Gender Equality and Social Inclusion | Women’s Empowerment | Civil Society, Civic Engagement, and Independent Media
Through a combination of training, policy reform, and positive communications, the USAID Promote: Women in Government (WIG) project supports Afghan women and government stakeholders to create civil service opportunities for women.

Afghanistan ranks near the bottom of virtually every index measuring gender equality and empowerment. Women continue to struggle for basic rights, including gender parity in health care, education, economic opportunities, social inclusion, and political participation. Amidst a deteriorating security situation, political instability surrounding upcoming national elections, and economic volatility that is a product of both, it is increasingly important that women become active participants in public life.

Despite the rollout of notable initiatives to promote and empower women by the Afghan government and the international community, the underrepresentation of women in public life is reflected within the government workforce. According to official Afghan government data, less than 23 percent of civil service employees are women. Family restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, the historical denial of women’s rights to education, and persistent harassment place significant obstacles between women and government jobs. Creating an enabling environment for women in the civil service is necessary to make the Afghan government truly representative of the entire population — not to mention reaching its target of increasing women’s participation in the government workforce to 30 percent by 2020.

USAID’s Promote: Women in Government (WIG) project is supporting Afghan women and government stakeholders to create opportunities for women to join the civil service. Through an innovative and multi-faceted approach, WIG implements a year-long internship training program for women in core civil service skillsets, provides technical assistance to develop and implement gender-inclusive policy reforms, and cultivates local stakeholder support through targeted outreach campaigns. At the beginning of the project’s fourth year, the results to date demonstrate clear improvements in women’s professional skills, policies that create a more enabling environment for women in government, and high-level political will to bring more women into decision-making roles.

  • 1,583 women have successfully graduated from the WIG internship program after completing three-month practicums with 71 government ministries and independent agencies.
  • 1,678 women are currently enrolled in the WIG internship program and on track to graduate in early 2019.
  • WIG supported the adoption of a new anti-harassment law, the Policy on Increasing Women’s Participation in the Civil Service, and more than 10 other policies, procedures, and regulations that support women at work.
  • WIG launched more than 100 public outreach campaigns, including a radio drama series that speaks to women’s challenges in rural areas, public roundtables with prominent religious leaders, and TV public service announcements that highlight women in non-traditional government career paths.

WIG is one of the most successful ongoing projects in Afghanistan that will help employ women in government ... [USAID] Promote has brought changes in our communities for young women in all sectors and we should keep the momentum going.

Gulab Mangal, Governor of Nangarhar Province

A One-year Internship Program that Gives Women the Skills for Lifelong Careers

Overall, WIG has enrolled more than 3,900 women in the year-long internship program across Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Nangarhar, and Kandahar. The program provides intensive hard and soft skills training in project management, computer science, human resources, procurement, and finance. Upon graduation, interns receive a certificate granting one-year of work experience and making them eligible to apply for government jobs. More than 300 of the program’s 1,583 graduates have gotten jobs across nearly 40 government ministries and independent agencies. Of the graduates to date, 92 percent have reported increased self-efficacy and 99 percent reported improved professional skills following the internship.

The WIG internship program has garnered high-level support, including that of Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah who reminded 400 Kabul interns at their April graduation, “Every one of you can be a source of positive change and transformation.” We are witnessing this transformation. Farima*, one of the WIG graduates from Mazar-e-Sharif, got a job as a gender specialist with the Mazar Municipality. After just a few months in the position, she is already training district staff in anti-harassment, and she recently submitted a proposal for the municipality to open a female gym to serve the women in her city. Farima exemplifies the impact that one woman can have on a community.

Afghan women participate in the USAID’s Promote: Women in Government (WIG) project's one-year training program.

In July, more than 300 women graduated from the year-long internship in Kabul.

Sustaining Policy Reforms that Transform

Giving women the skills and resources they need to get jobs in the government is not enough. The women of Afghanistan face tremendous obstacles when it comes to participating as equal members of society. Many of these obstacles emanate from government policies that do not adequately account for their needs.

To overcome some of these policy-related challenges, 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.

Recognizing the challenges associated with inter-ministerial coordination and the realities of building political will to support women in a deeply conservative society, WIG developed an innovative strategy for policy reform in alignment with USAID’s facilitation approach. The project facilitates three policy working groups comprised of ministries and independent agencies that collaborate to identify, develop, and implement policy reforms around capacity-building, public awareness, and workplace enablers for women in government.

While WIG facilitates, the working groups are led by key government partners, including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) and the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission (IARCSC). Rather than defining which policies and regulations need to be reformed from an outside perspective, WIG supports working group members to identify and own policy reform efforts. Policies are developed in coordination with civil society representatives to ensure that they respond to the realities on the ground. We also bring in the perspectives of WIG interns — the ultimate beneficiaries of these policies as they start their careers in government. The project provides targeted technical assistance at the request of government partners. Currently, WIG’s policy team is supporting MOWA to draft Afghanistan’s new national gender policy.

This model has already been successful. In 2018, WIG supported the Afghan government to formally adopt the reformed Anti-Harassment Law. The new law lays out a detailed definition of harassment — in public and in the workplace. It also establishes formal complaint mechanisms and anti-harassment committees within ministries, while setting forth clear penalties for harassment.

Building Societal Support for Women

“Religion does not impose restrictions on the rights of women and their jobs, religion has no problem with them [women], with women’s rights, work, and their development in society; you can see this in the history of Islam,” according to Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs Faiz Mohammad Osmani. This important message transmits as the project implements communications and outreach campaigns to expand the impact of project interventions and promote local stakeholder support for women working outside the home. Communications and outreach activities promote positive public attitudes toward women in government, advocate for employment, and support the adoption of policy reforms by government institutions.

WIG implements a targeted and layered approach to communications and outreach — using radio, television, and SMS platforms to promote positive behavior change among male heads of household, religious leaders, the media, and the public at large. These messages reflect the culture of storytelling in Afghan culture. From a radio drama series that features strong women in conservative communities to digital training resources for government employees, the project uses a variety of tools to cultivate positive, sustainable change.

Moving Faster in the Right Direction

Unfortunately, not all the problems for women in Afghanistan are solved yet. But by employing more women in the Afghan civil service, supporting policy reforms, and widely disseminating positive communications, Afghanistan can become more inclusive, diverse, and accepting of women in the workplace. WIG supports this paradigm shift, specifically for women working in the Afghan government.

I overcame lifelong challenges and now feel more confident to talk with other employees, work together with them in teams, and complete an assigned task.

Participant, WIG Internship Program

The government still has a long way to go to reach its target of increasing women’s representation in the civil service to 30 percent by 2020. To reach this target, it must enforce existing policies that actively reduce the cultural and infrastructure barriers preventing women from working in governmental organizations and implement new policies to encourage supportive work and family environments for women. WIG is here to support that process on all fronts. The Afghan government requires the intellectual and human capacity resources of both men and women to ensure long-term political stability and economic growth in a period of pronounced uncertainty.

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

About Dr. Susanne E. Jalbert

Dr. Susanne E. Jalbert is a gender equity advocate, economic development activist, and a women’s rights political strategist with over 25 years of experience. She currently serves as chief of party on the USAID Promote: Women in Government (WIG) project. As a veteran global activist, Dr. Jalbert has employed economic development as an essential tool…

About Robert Lord-Biggers

Robert Lord-Biggers is a manager in Chemonics’ Afghanistan region.