On International Women’s Day, World Policy Journal spoke with Charlotte Ponticelli, an international consultant and adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America with 23 years of U.S. government experience, including the position of senior coordinator for international women’s issues at the Department of State. Ponticelli, who is involved with several women’s organizations currently operating in Afghanistan, discusses the challenges Afghan women activists are trying to overcome and the role of the international community in assisting their efforts.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Can you tell us about the work that the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council does in Afghanistan?
CHARLOTTE PONTICELLI: The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council is a public-private partnership. It was first launched in 2002 by President George W. Bush and Afghan President [Hamid] Karzai. So it’s not just a public-private partnership, but also a country-to-country partnership. The reason it came about was, in the wake of 9/11 and with so much of the world’s attention focused on the situation of women in Afghanistan, there were many folks—particularly women—in the United States in the private sector, from the business sector, from the academic sector, from all over the country who came forward and said, “How can we help? The situation of the women in Afghanistan really grabs and impacts us. And we feel we have something that perhaps we could offer. We would like to be brought to the table.” And so the Council was formed to channel that energy, that focus, and that interest in the situation of the women in Afghanistan.
WPJ: So what does the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council do, exactly?
CP: Well, it’s really the sum of its parts, so it’s a way to continue to channel these collective efforts—working on educational or scholarship or job training initiatives to assist Afghan women and girls. As you can imagine, that is increasingly a challenge because of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan right now, particularly the security situation. I try not just to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk. We fought for 14 years—what is our investment, and what has our sacrifice brought? That sacrifice brought gains, to a degree. But how fragile are those gains? And what’s going to be needed to make it seem worthwhile for the United States to continue with its commitment to Afghanistan?
WPJ: How has life for Afghan women changed since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001?
CP: Well, it’s changed in a number of very clear and measurable ways. Fourteen years ago, the school enrollment of girls in Afghanistan was very, very low. Roughly 45 percent of children now back in school are girls. It’s no longer just 800,000, it’s a much larger number right now. So you have improvements in education and access to education. You have improvements in health and access to health. You have a political presence of Afghan women themselves, which they certainly didn’t have 14 years ago. You have women involved in the economy, women as entrepreneurs and as leaders in NGOs. Women are starting their own businesses, which is a phenomenal story. Women are now actively involved in every single sector, including engineering and the judicial system. Their individual achievements and their ripple effect are really amazing.
WPJ: What effect do you think the current resurgence of the Taliban will have on the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan? And will there still be space for women’s groups to continue their work?
CP: That’s the key question right now. For those of us who have worked so long and so hard with and for the women of Afghanistan, we feel extremely close to them, and have built some incredibly strong friendships and relationships. That is our main concern. It’s really hard sometimes to look at all these things achieved in 14 years, and at the same time to look at how much is at risk. There is a very discernible level of fear and concern on the part of these emerging female leaders in Afghanistan. They know how much is at risk. Many of them are risking their lives on a daily basis to continue the work they had set about doing. I occasionally get emails from young women who are either working on U.S.-funded projects there or studying here, and they’re looking at what they would do when they go back, and they’re very fearful and concerned. There’s no sugar-coating the situation. And in some cases, their families are saying this isn’t a good time to come back, and that is very, very painful for them. They’re away from their families. They’re here studying, gaining skills, and they want to help and continue to take an active role in rebuilding their country—but it’s a huge risk in many parts of Afghanistan and in many different sectors right now.
WPJ: What role can Afghan men play in furthering women’s rights in Afghanistan?
CP: The role of Afghan men is a tremendous one, and I’ve continually been amazed by the Afghan women leaders who have told me personally, “You know, I wouldn’t be here without the support of my father. I wouldn’t be here, except my husband said, you got the scholarship, you need to go and study. I’ll take care of the children.” One woman who was the head of the Afghan Midwives Association told me how during the time of the Taliban, her son drove her around to deliver babies, and she delivered 2,000 babies, risking her life to do so, because women weren’t allowed to work outside the home, and if they were caught doing so they could be killed. So there are some tremendous stories of courage that not a lot of people know about—not just on the part of the Afghan women, but also the men in their families and in their communities who have supported them. What is always ingrained in my mind is the women who said, “Look, we’re very grateful for U.S. support for us, the women of Afghanistan, but don’t forget the boys.” The boys need education too, and they need to be educated not just in literacy and numeracy, but on the values that make life worthwhile, such as respect toward women, respect toward human rights, and recognition of opportunity for all. And the Afghan women who have said, “That’s great—they’re helping me with jobs, thank you. But you know, when my husband doesn’t have work, he comes home and beats me.” Men need jobs too. So it’s a very big opportunity—those Afghan men are very supportive of the common cause, but it could be a threat if a boy is uneducated, or if a man isn’t given opportunity. And it is pleasing to see an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, for example, which has done some fabulous work working with the local mullahs in communities, working with other religious leaders, and working with men. It’s a critical endeavor.
WPJ: What role has the U.S. played to date in promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan?
CP: It’s amazing to have this conversation on International Women’s Day. It’s a very poignant moment for me to think how many Women’s Days I’ve been involved in to support this cause. The U.S. and many of our coalition partners have played at a cost of blood and treasure, and we have played a fundamental role. There are folks who say, “That’s great, you’ve trained 15 women here,” or, “That’s great, you helped start 300 businesses there.” But look at all the need—in this population of 30 million with 45 percent under the age of 25, the demographics are key. But when you change a life, you do change the world. It’s been one life, one woman, one community, one family—I think there’s a really measurable ripple effect. So again, let’s go back to the work of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. It’s focused primarily in these areas: women’s political participation, women’s leadership in terms of the political sphere, and working with women through peer-to-peer partnerships to help them gain the skills that they need to start their businesses. And as Condoleezza Rice once said—I’m paraphrasing—what we’re really doing is trying to work in partnership with others to help them find their voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way. Secretary Rice, at the time, called that “transformational diplomacy,” and in my view, it’s still an imperative. We can’t do things for others, but we can help others do the job themselves. And there are measurable gains. Now the question is, will those gains be sustainable without continued U.S. involvement? I know I’m not alone in believing that for the gains to be sustainable, we have to be persistent, reliable, consistent partners.
WPJ: To what extent should the U.S. continue to be involved, and to what extent does the process of change for Afghan women need to start in Afghanistan?
CP: Yes, the U.S. should continue to be involved. And yes, it’s going to be up to the Afghan people to carry their part of the load to make positive changes in their country. The security situation, the corruption, the still incredible challenge of the opium trade, the addiction issue—those are part of the cycle of poverty, ignorance, insecurity, and corruption. So the negative cycle feeds itself, just as the positive cycle can make such a huge difference, which is why investing in girls’ education and in job skills for women in Afghanistan has been such a monumental, very worthwhile investment. Much of the credit for the progress in these various spheres goes to midwives, journalists, parliamentarians, and women heads of NGOs. We have to acknowledge that while we’ve done a lot, it is their courage, resilience, and persistence, and really their gratitude [that have led to progress].
WPJ: The promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan has effectively put a target on the backs of feminist activists, causing many of these women to be killed. How do you reconcile advocacy with the danger it puts many Afghan women in?
CP: That’s a phenomenal question. That is the challenge, of course! In addition to my work inside the government and in the private sector, as well as in the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, and I’m also on the respected boards of two organizations operating in Afghanistan. One is the Bayat Foundation, which is now building its 13th health facility for maternal and child health care in Afghanistan, and the other is the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a scholarship and leadership initiative that has educated almost 100 young women in the past 10 years. The key to our efforts, and what needs to be key in our efforts looking forward, is that we make sure that what we do is not our prescription, it’s not our “here’s your recipe for success.” We can work in partnership, but we need to make sure that our efforts respond to the needs and priorities of the Afghan women themselves. That’s how the Council came about.
I was mentioning the four areas: political, economic, education, and health. I sometimes get a bit hurt when I hear criticism saying an initiative didn’t work because we were trying impose our values or trying to impose certain projects on Afghan women, which is a bunch of hooey. I was just a member of a team and a network that was much, much bigger than one person or a couple of people alone. We very much endeavored to respond to the needs and priorities identified to us by the Afghan women themselves. Now, if at any point we hear that one of our partners, one of our peers, or one of our counterparts on the other end feels that there’s a target on their backs, we jump in to try to make sure we are not asking something of our partners that might put another life in danger. So it’s something we’re constantly cognizant of. What’s pretty amazing to me is the number of Afghan women that say, maybe this will put a target on me, but I want, I need to continue. Now, that just blows you away. I remember one conversation maybe 10 or 12 years ago with a young Afghan woman judge. She was talking about her work, and she said, “You know, every day when I leave the house, I never know … I kiss my family goodbye. I never know if I’m going to make it home to them. I don’t know if I’ll make it home alive.” She said it very calmly, dispassionately almost. It was a fact. And it was the work that meant everything to her. It is very, very painful when you hear about a serious threat—and I have, and I continue to hear about threats against some women who were doing some incredibly brave work.
WPJ: So what should the international community’s response be to the use of cultural arguments to justify the perpetuation of violence against women in Afghanistan?
CP: Especially here in the U.S., as a nation we’re still pretty young compared to countries like Afghanistan, which has a history of 5000 years. And we have a very short attention span. It has taken quite a while for Afghan “culture” to begin, or at least to be perceived, the way it’s often perceived now. Back in the 70s, you had women who were wearing miniskirts, going to universities, and had complete freedom. I remember the first Afghan delegation I met back in September 2000, and I remember one woman I sat next to. She said, “You know, my mother used to tell me how she wore miniskirts, and here we are—we have women in burqas.” Sometimes, especially in the U.S., we tend to forget that culture can change. How do you define culture? Is it all that’s good about your country and where you come from? The art, the music, all the beauty of your country, of your origin? Or culture that’s a brick wall, that keeps change out? The hardest thing is always changing attitudes. In any society, in any country, that’s why education, that’s why training initiatives, that’s why constantly building is so important, because it’s not just physical capacity. It’s that capacity to imagine, to envision a different way of living a different future. And I think that we talked a lot about political and economic and security transition in Afghanistan that’s been kind of our watchword over the past 10, 14 years. But I’ve heard some very wise Afghans point out the need for a generational change, too. I believe there’s a great deal of hope in this new young generation in Afghanistan that’s refusing to accept the mindsets of the past and working together—young men and young women, together, shoulder to shoulder—for a better future for their country. That’s where the hope is.
WPJ: Are we seeing the start of a feminist uprising in Afghanistan right now?
CP: Let’s go back to the generational issue. What you want to call an uprising or a break with the past, a refusal to be burdened by the past—we can look toward the possibility of a generational uprising, if you will. And it’s going to be young men, and it’s going to be young women. And especially now with the increasing spread of mobile technology and access to the Internet, to some degree, the genie’s out of the bottle. The young people are much more aware of the possibility of change.
I’ve done human rights issues, humanitarian issues, development changes, you name it, in different parts of my career over the years, and met so many inspiring agents of change. But I have to say that for me, hands down, some of the most courageous and most inspiring people on this earth are the women of Afghanistan, and it’s been a real honor and a joy for me to be part of this work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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