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Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Kristen Cordell, gender advisor for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at USAID.
“When I was a young man, I held my own sister back from going to school. I didn’t even know why I should let her go,” my colleague Nadir* recalled at a recent meeting at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
One might be surprised to hear that Nadir now serves as deputy director of the gender section at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) office in Kabul. Growing up in Afghanistan, he witnessed the unique challenges women in his family faced: restricted access to education, limited career opportunities, and domestic violence. These injustices eventually drove him to law school—to become an advocate for those who could not advocate for themselves. He later represented his aunt in her legal battle to end an abusive, forced marriage and supported his mother’s return to school at the age of forty. At USAID, Nadir devotes his time to addressing the immense gender gaps in opportunities and understanding that linger in Afghanistan. He is a true advocate for women’s empowerment, often at great risk to himself and his loved ones.
Nadir serves as an example of the tremendous impact men can have on the lives of women in their families. Efforts to empower women cannot succeed if they do not engage the other half of the population: men. Who allows a daughter to attend her first day of primary school? Who drives a sister to her classes at a nearby university? Who helps with the children while a wife works late at the office? From the poorest farmer to the wealthiest businessman, men can and should be champions of women’s empowerment.
Yet Nadir’s story also underscores the fundamental struggle in the project to empower Afghan women: convincing men to become active supporters. Rather than viewing women’s empowerment as a zero-sum game where men ultimately lose, all Afghans should consider it as a vehicle for advancing their country’s prosperity; increasing the opportunities women have to contribute to society leads to greater transparency, rising GDP, and decreased corruption.
The strictures surrounding gender can be lifted, and those societal gains made, only when the majority of a country—men and women—fight for that change. By introducing and convincing more individuals to join the cause, supporters of women’s empowerment can encourage a “norm cascade,” where a critical mass of the population is reached, and a new norm—in this case, women’s unhindered involvement in the Afghan public space—is embraced. A forthcoming USAID study shows that much of the challenge in convincing men to become advocates for women lies in exposure to new ideas, new culture, new types of interaction.
USAID’s recently launched Promote project, the U.S. government’s flagship effort to enhance women’s empowerment in Afghanistan, supports women through community outreach, business empowerment, coalition building, and reforming workplace dynamics. Promote strives to create an environment where obstacles to women’s participation in their country do not exist. The project takes into account the role of fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons in supporting women’s aspirations and integrates these men into every aspect of the project’s operations. The goal is not simply to convince fathers that their daughters should participate in Promote; rather, it is to persuade fathers to participate themselves. By engaging Afghan men directly, Promote hopes to give them a stake in the project’s success.
Furthermore, Promote was designed to be fluid and responsive to the beliefs, opinions, and suggestions of beneficiaries, male participants, rights groups, Afghan leaders, academia, and the private sector. As Assistant Administrator of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs Donald “Larry” Sampler said, it is a “platform, rather than a project.” Promote’s flexible, non-traditional mechanism allows not only for greater involvement—and thus buy-in—from Afghan participants, but also for buy-in from other international donors, ensuring the program will grow and prosper.
Nadir recently became a father. When he talks about empowering Afghan women, he doesn’t think of norm cascades, flexible development platforms, or best practices for engaging men. Instead, he thinks about his daughter and his hopes for the country she will live in.
*This name has been changed to protect the coauthor, who worked closely with Cordell on the preparation of this blog post.
You can find out more about Promote (including how to get involved) at www.PromoteAfghanWomen.org.