Wazhma Frogh is a lifetime campaigner for Afghan women and girls. She co-founded the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Afghanistan in 2011 and is a member of the Afghan Women’s Network. In 2009, the U.S. State Department granted her the International Women of Courage Award. Frogh recently spoke with Facebook viewers during the final days of a national consensus-seeking loya jirga in Afghanistan, a few weeks after a limited political agreement between the U.S. government and the Taliban.
This conversation- moderated by Maria Luisa Gambale, correspondent for PassBlue, and documentary producer- is part of a Facebook Live series hosted by PassBlue, a publication that provides independent coverage of the United Nations, with a concentration on women in foreign policy and peace operations. The discussion on Afghanistan was co-hosted by The New School, the Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, Afghan Women’s Network, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Women’s March Global, Ms. Magazine, Oxfam and Refinery29.
For the past 22 years, Wazhma Frogh has been actively engaged in making sure that Afghan women have a voice and are able to get into the decision-making structures. She started this work in the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, working with children and young women creating education and literacy programs. When she returned to Afghanistan with her family in 2001, she started working with the Afghan Women’s Network, one of the leading women networks in the country. She attended the loya lirga in 2010, where she was often the only woman on working committees. “Every time that I wanted to speak,” said Frogh, “I would be told by the men, ‘You women are not part of the war, you’re not killing, you’re not doing any suicide bombings and attacks, you’re not part of the war, so what makes you part of the peace?’ So, I started the Women and Peace Studies Organization with a colleague of mine. We address that question, what makes women part of the peace process.”
Maria Luisa Gambale: There are a number of different talks on different axes going on in the past few months, and coming up. Can you introduce what is happening right now?
Wazhma Frogh: The U.S. Special Envoy started direct talks with the Taliban in September 2018. And the whole purpose, as we see it, is for the U.S. to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan as soon as possible.
While this is going on, Afghans inside Afghanistan have been working to reach some sort of consensus. In 2010, the government created a national peace re-integration program and established a peace council, and there has been regional and international consensus that Afghan conflict needs a political settlement, not a military one. This past week, the government drew together 3,500 representatives from around the country in a national loya jirga to create a consensus for moving forward.
What the U.S. is doing in Doha does not match what has been going on inside Afghanistan, because their political settlement is not part of a larger peace process. Peace is not just being able to sign a deal. Reconciliation and justice are needed, and re-integration of combatants.
My biggest worry is that these thousands of young Afghans who have taken up arms - how will they be content by a peace deal that will be signed in Doha? What are the reasons why they have become violent extremists in their own communities? If we do not deal with these root causes, yes, a deal might be signed in Doha. But Afghanistan again will be another hub for terrorism.
Gambale: What’s the hoped for outcome from the current loya jirga. Are you hopeful about what its outcomes?
Frogh: The jirga is very positive, even just in terms of bringing people together. 3,500 people have come together. And 30 percent of them are women. And ultimately it mandated that the government push for a ceasefire in any peace talks. People are demanding the end of bloodshed. So, I think that’s a positive impact.
And that dialogue itself does put pressure on the Taleban. Because when all Afghans come together and say we want an end of the conflict, the Taleban have to agree with it. Who are they representing? They have to respond to this question, they need the public support.
Gambale: What impact can women have when they are involved in peace processes?
Frogh: I’ve been part of so many consultations and engagements in Afghanistan. And the biggest impact is that it becomes inclusive. And when it becomes inclusive, it doesn’t only bring women, it brings so many men who haven’t had an opportunity to be heard.
For example, look at local conflicts on water. When we bring in women, the women point out other groups who are impacted, who were considered minorities and weren’t being listened to. When we bring in women, everyone has a chance to be included.
And when you bring in women, it’s not just about power sharing. It becomes about responsibility sharing. So, when women engage in the process, we talk about the needs of the communities, about justice, about schools, about health, about education. It becomes about communities and issues, not just about men deciding which power positions to hold.
Gambale: What do you see as obstacles women specifically face in being part of the peace process, whether specific to Afghanistan or worldwide?
Frogh: Women are pushing to be included in the process. They are very strong. The challenge is always that they are told this is not the time for women. When we ask the U.S. envoy why women are not part of their talks, he says he’s only talking to the Taliban about the U.S. withdrawal, and that when Afghans talk with the Taliban, then women’s rights can be discussed. So, that’s the major challenge, that we do not have the opportunity yet.
But we keep pushing. We send letters to the U.S. envoy. We do social media campaigns like #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack. In in the past two months, the Afghan Women’s Network has been able to mobilize more than 2 million women across the country.
Gambale: And has there been response?
Frogh: Well yes, the U.S. envoy references the women’s movement, he references the women’s networks, and the women’s work. But at the same time, they have not been able to create a platform where people can come together.
Like last month, we were supposed to have talks in Doha between Afghans and the Taliban. A long list of women was proposed by the Afghan government to be part of the delegation. But eventually the Taliban did not agree with that. And so the talks were delayed, maybe cancelled. So, we need a third party mediator like the UN or Norway who can actually facilitate the process, and play an important role to ensure that women also have a voice.
Gambale: Can you share a recent success story of a women-led peace effort in Afghanistan?
Frogh: One of the local peace-builders that I work with; she works in the south, which is a very difficult part of the country. And together with her, we set up these mothers’ groups.
The mothers have started coming together to come up with ways on how to prevent their sons from becoming suicide bombers. So, they start with recognizing initial signs that a son has been approached by the Taliban, to be a suicide bomber or become engaged in the insurgency. Like she reads some notes in his pockets, because it’s the mother who washes his clothes. Or he’s coming home late, because it’s mother who gives him food.
With this group, she has been able to actually prevent many suicide bombings. There are so many women like her who are peace-builders, who don’t get any attention.
Gambale: How can women from other countries help you and other Afghan women who want peace?
Frogh: If Afghan women are actually provided an opportunity to be a meaningful part of the formal talks and any eventual agreement, this will become a groundbreaking reference for the rest of the world. It’s always been said Afghanistan is so patriarchal and traditional, and women can’t have rights. But all that has been actually a myth.
So, what I actually look for is global women’s solidarity. If women are connected with each other, if they share experiences, if they share expertise, this will strengthen the momentum, this will strengthen the women’s movement. It’s a litmus test for the world, what’s going on in Afghanistan.