Michelle Barsa: The Role for Women in Defining Afghanistan’s Future


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After 12 years in Afghanistan, US-led coalition forces are drawing down their presence, and the Afghan government is assuming full responsibility for the security of its citizens. A presidential run-off election is scheduled for next week, and peace talks remain precariously paused. Women have exercised their rights to work, vote, be educated, and serve in political office, but the question of how to sustain these gains remains unanswered.

Last week, Women’s Foreign Policy Group hosted an event to take a closer look at the role Afghan women have played leading up to this pivotal transition and the future landscape for their political participation, integration in the security forces, and inclusion in the peace process. Inclusive Security Action’s Michelle Barsa, an expert on women’s participation in Afghanistan’s political realm and security sector, was the keynote speaker. Barsa shared insights learned over dozens of trips to the region and consultations with civil society, government, and security forces to discuss the impact of ongoing peace and security processes on women.

Inclusive Security Action’s Michelle Barsa speaks at a Women’s Foreign Policy Group event. Barsa, an expert on women’s participation in Afghanistan’s political realm and security sector, shared insights learned over dozens of trips to the region and consultations with civil society, government, and security forces to discuss the impact of ongoing peace and security processes on women.

Inclusive Security Action’s Michelle Barsa speaks at a Women’s Foreign Policy Group event. Barsa, an expert on women’s participation in Afghanistan’s political realm and security sector, shared insights learned over dozens of trips to the region and consultations with civil society, government, and security forces to discuss the impact of ongoing peace and security processes on women.

With the President’s recent announcement of a full drawdown of troops by the end of 2016, and with the NATO Resolute Support Mission on the same timeline, Barsa asked, “how do we leverage increasingly limited international resources to solidify the gains over the course of the intervention—with particular attention paid to the role for women?”

“One thing we can agree on,” said Barsa, “on April 5th, Afghans surprised us all.”

  • Women’s voter turnout was 36 percent—on par with 2009 elections, though the actual number of voters was about 300,000 higher
  • Many of the women polling stations ran out of ballots, because turnout was so high
  • Women were pushing to reopen voter registration because people who didn’t vote felt embarrassed to have missed engaging with a seminal moment in Afghanistan’s history
  • Speculation now runs high about who will win—Abdullah Abdullah or Ghani—but fears that there may not be a peaceful transition of power seem to have subsided

Barsa identified two parallel conversations currently taking place:

  • How to secure and stabilize the Afghan state
  • How to sustain the gains women have made

The problem, said Barsa, is that “segregating these conversations can lead you to the false conclusion that it may be possible to do one without the other—that you may be able to secure and stabilize the Afghan state without sustaining the gains women have made, and vice versa. The reality is that the two are dependent on one another.”

Barsa proposed prioritizing three interventions to best promote Afghan women’s security:

1. Good Governance

Much of the foreign aid administered over the course of the intervention circumvented Afghan institutions. This was largely because, early on, the government lacked the capacity to handle the incredible infusion of aid. Afghan civil society organizations implemented much of the development programming but often sat at the end of a long chain of international contractors and subcontractors. For the aid invested to sustain impact, the focus must be on developing and supporting the ability of Afghan institutions to administer health, education, and economic development services themselves. And for them to do so in a way that allows equity of access for men and women.

Patricia Ellis, President and Co-Founder of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, introduces Afghanistan expert Michelle Barsa.

Patricia Ellis, President and Co-Founder of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, introduces Afghanistan expert Michelle Barsa.

2. Access to Legal Recourse

In their lifetimes, 87 percent of Afghan women will experience some form of gender-based violence. Meanwhile, women comprise less than 1 one percent of the national police force and only 10 percent of the judicial corps. To ensure equality under the law, legal recourse must be made available to women. “In a country as sex-segregated as Afghanistan, you have to be thinking about how to get women into these positions—those that preside over the execution of justice,” said Barsa. When you have female police officers in place at a local level, crimes of sexual- and gender-based violence are more likely to be reported, investigated, and prosecuted.

3. Political Participation

The most important way to protect women’s rights under the next administration is to ensure Afghan women are positioned to defend those rights. This means ensuring women are in positions of political power and judicial authority, but it also means engaging women at the local level in the public debates and dialogues that will define the future of the Afghan state—not least of which is a potential political settlement with the Taliban. The more women demonstrate active citizenship, the more public representatives will have to respond to their demands as members of a voting constituency.

Afghan women, Barsa concluded, are the largest untapped resource for ensuring a sustainable peace. With a concentrated focus on good governance at a sub-national level, access to legal recourse, and women’s political participation, there’s a strong hope the US will deliver on its promises to support a secure Afghanistan that equally delivers justice to all of its citizens, men and women alike.

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