The fall of Afghanistan was on the minds of those who joined our Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium session on women and girls. Our conversation was a primer in effective networking strategies to support women and girls in a time of complex emergency.
Earlier, Malala Yousafzai had given a keynote address, and her presence reminded us of her fearless advocacy for women’s rights in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What now for women and girls in Afghanistan with the Taliban takeover, we asked?
Some thirty of us gathered online for this session from diverse geographies, perspectives, and experiences. We discussed the last time the Taliban was in power, where women paid a profound price. Women’s rights were decimated, including their participation in the workforce. Women were not allowed to work, and they had to be accompanied by a male relative if they left the house. Girls’ education was banned. For now, it seems the situation will be like that of 20 years ago. What might our philanthropic community do in response?
As we gathered, we spoke of the Taliban telling working women to stay at home and that schools and colleges would be segregated by gender. Many at-risk Afghan women hadn’t been able to leave the country. Some Afghan women’s networks that have sustained education, health care, economic empowerment, and human rights advocacy have formed underground operations to get essential supplies to at-risk Afghan women, even in the face of death threats.
We also discussed what was different from the last time the Taliban was in power 20 years ago. Many Afghan women have risked their lives by taking to the streets to advocate for their rights. Their fearlessness is so evident in literally placing themselves on the frontlines. The Taliban will rely on international assistance to stave off mass starvation and the collapse of health systems. To govern, the Taliban will depend on the recognition and humanitarian support of the international community where a modicum of human rights is expected. They will also need the support of local communities in Afghanistan where in recent years there has been a steady increase in community support for girls as well as boys being educated and for women being able to work and contribute to household income. Perhaps there is hope.
What to do as a philanthropic community? We discussed strategies we knew were important and that had been crucial in other crises. The bedrock strategy was to contribute core funds to women’s organisations and networks in Afghanistan and destination countries that are pivoting to address the emergency by accepting refugees.
We were a diverse group of people working in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. Our focus included issues traversing disability rights, trafficking, girls’ education, and women’s political voice. We exercised deep listening in our session and shared thoughtful comments about addressing mental health issues for those experiencing trauma.
Several of us spoke about sustaining women’s organisations and networks, as they are essential to hold ground on rights secured, and because these networks are trusted sources of support, knowledge, and relationships for many Afghan women. We recognised the critical importance of supporting women’s safety and security, livelihoods, and leadership within Afghanistan and for women who are refugees in new countries.
We discussed the necessity of providing psycho-social support during emergencies. We agreed it was critical to provide this support – including to at-risk Afghan women who had managed to escape the country and were now coming to terms with the trauma of their experience and the uncertainty of what their lives held for the time ahead. This is where the power of networks plays a role. Trusted women’s networks in transit and destination countries can provide psycho-social support and solidarity to Afghan women. Again, these networks need to have access to core funds to sustain their operations and services.
We kept returning to this point about investing in the power of women’s networks inside Afghanistan and for Afghan women refugees.
We recognised that networking between donors and philanthropists would be vital in the time ahead to sustain the safety and security of women journalists, human rights defenders, and peacemakers. Working with a network of research institutes, colleges, and academic institutions would be essential for girls’ education and women’s leadership. This network includes centers for women, peace, and security – to provide safe spaces for Afghan women’s recovery, research, and reflection. In this way, Afghan girls can have an education and women can reclaim their voice and leadership and access opportunities to support their economic security and future.
We spoke about the power of networks in Afghanistan to support community-based programming focused on education, vocational training, and home-based women-led small businesses. With this sustained commitment, there may be a day where educated women and men can realise peace in Afghanistan again.
I came away from this session feeling a sense of hope. I felt convinced more than ever of the importance of getting core funds to women’s groups, networks, and movements. The power of networks to achieve transformative change was a vital strategy. Our session affirmed this as a network generously sharing our own lived experiences. It was a master class in effective philanthropy.
Jane Sloane (she/her/hers)
Senior Director, Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality
The Asia Foundation