Asuntha Charles: the peace process cannot fail Afghan women again

Mar 23, 2021
By Asuntha Charles, National Director of World Vision Afghanistan

Last week, representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban gathered in Moscow to advance peace talks. The 12 members of the Afghan government delegation included one woman, Dr. Habiba Sarabi who declared: “Why I should be the only woman in the room? We have not been part of the war. We can certainly contribute to peace. Fifty-one percent of people should not be ignored. I hope the hosts take note of it for the future.”

The resumption of peace talks in my adopted country, Afghanistan, offers some renewed hope that more than 40 years of continuous war will come to an end. But the world must realize that these talks will never truly be successful, that conflict will not end, until women and girls have a meaningful voice at the table.

It’s not lost on me that the peace talks come at a time when people around the globe recently marked International Women’s Day. Surely, as we “choose to challenge gender bias and inequality”, we need to recognize that Women’s Day can’t really be called “international” until places like Afghanistan can fully join the celebration.

Many Canadians are familiar with the extreme challenges facing Afghanistan. Most remember Afghanistan from the military mission and shocking headlines about the oppression of women. Yes, Afghanistan remains 170th of 189 countries on the UN Gender Equality Index. And it’s true that women and girls continue to experience the daily threat of physical and sexual violence, early and forced marriage and limited access to education, health care and even food. 

Fighting for my dreams

But Canadians should also know that there is hope. I personally know this hope. I was raised in a traditional south Indian family in a traditional society. I had to fight for my dreams whilst enduring intense pressure from friends and family to get married and start a family. 

I chose to remain single and make my own decisions in life. I challenged a lot of cultural norms by taking primary care of my elder parents in a society that believes that is the traditional responsibility of sons. 
an India woman stands behind an older Indian couple in a room filled with family photographsAsuntha at home with her parents. Asuntha has chosen to challenge a lot of societal norms including taking on the primary care of her elder parents. Photo: courtesy of Asuntha Charles

When my older sisters traveled from one town to the other, they were accompanied by their husbands. But I “chose to challenge”, and I became the first woman in my family to travel abroad and to live independently. 

I know from experience the incredible potential that can be unlocked in women. My journey took me from India to Canada where I coordinated a youth exchange program between Canadian and Indian youth in Port Alberni, British Columbia. This experience helped me see the possibilities of an international career and led me to where I am now in Afghanistan, leading of one of the largest NGO’s operating in that country.

Today I am truly happy to have had the opportunity to fulfill my dreams, and by that, to inspire my nieces and many young girls in my home community to pursue their dreams. It has been very rewarding to see them becoming economically independent and making their own choices in life.

Afghan women trailblazers

And I am not alone. Over the past two decades Afghan women trailblazers have led real progress in the struggle for social, political, legal, and leadership participation. Today, girls represent nearly 40 per cent of children enrolled in school, and women are active in political and economic life. Women are mayors, entrepreneurs, police officers, and doctors. Our representation in Parliament has reached 27 per cent - not quite equal, but still relatively close, to Canada’s 29 per cent.
An Afghan woman speaks to an Indian woman. They are both wearing scarves and masksAsuntha speaks to an Afghan woman living in a displaced persons camp. This woman is one of three million people who were forced from their homes because of severe drought and flash floods. Since April 2018, World Vision Afghanistan has been responding with food, clean water, lifesaving medical services and more. Photo: Qauom Abdullahi

In my role, I am doing all I can to help support equity and opportunity for Afghan women and girls as they continue to realize their rights. We foster women’s economic empowerment and community engagement to stop harmful practices like child marriage to keep girls in school. 

In areas where we work, 88 per cent of children report they will choose to stay in school instead of getting married, compared to other areas where 35 per cent of girls are married as children and drop out of school. By working closely with families, faith leaders and authorities at all levels, we are achieving more education for girls and, ultimately, positive change in Afghanistan.  

Canada’s feminist legacy in Afghanistan

This peace process cannot fail the women of Afghanistan again; it will mean catastrophe for the entire country. The research is in. There is a strong correlation between instability at the national level and the diminishment of women’s voices, rights and agency in the home. We know that to reach a lasting peace, we must have women's participation at every step of the process, and in every part of society.

Canada’s feminist legacy in Afghanistan can be the political influence and continued programs that work towards gender equality and the realization of rights. This is the only solution for Afghanistan to put conflict and instability in the rearview mirror. Turning our backs on Afghanistan is not an option.

Women and girls are dynamic agents of change. Educated girls can be the decision makers of tomorrow. They are not passive victims waiting for more barriers to come down. When they have access to opportunities they can and will change Afghanistan - and the world.

Asuntha Charles is the National Director of World Vision Afghanistan. With more than 25 years of experience with humanitarian assistance and community development, she is a strong advocate for women's and children's rights. Asuntha holds a Master of Social Work from Stella Maris College in Chennai, India.


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