‘If you’re not at the [peace] table, then you’re on the menu, to be eaten alive!’

Interview with Wazhma Frogh, Co-Founder of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security (Kabul, Afghanistan)

wps afghanistan wazhma frogh

Furthering the agenda of WPS in Afghanistan. Wazhma Frogh is second from the right.

On beautiful day in Melbourne recently we sat down to talk with Wazhma Frogh, a truly amazing women’s rights activist and Co-founder of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security in Kabul, Afghanistan. Wazhma was in Australia together with 12 other Afghani leaders from the Parliament and civil society thanks to the efforts of the Afghanistan-Australian Development Organisation (AADO). AADO is keen to make the Australian government is aware of the role of Afghani women in the peace and reconciliation process and actively supports them, and that deals don’t get made with the Taliban that compromise women’s rights as ISAF forces withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014.

We asked Wazhma how she got interested in women, peace and security issues and why she founded RIWPS in 2012 with Sabinra Saqeb, the youngest member of the Afghan parliament in the previous term.

‘I was one of 65 at a Grand Assembly (called Loya Jirga in Afghanistan) in  2011, seated at a table with Taliban, tribal leaders and many senior government  officials, and people were asking me “Why are you here? Why women? Why should we  listen to what women have to say about peace?”

After this encounter she decided to start RIWPS to document women’s participation in peace processes and their conflict-resolution activities. Wazhma and other activists try to use traditional practices and blend them with contemporary understandings about gender and security. We asked her if she could give us an example of how they do this.

‘We can use “nanawati” to avoid the escalation of conflict because the idea  of nanawati means that Afghan elders and leaders have an obligation to treat the  person who invokes it with respect. Elder women can traditionally invoke  “nanawati” and have been using this traditional practice, blending the old ways  with new skills, in conflict resolution. This is why the Institute says we are  working towards a new paradigm of peace and security in Afghanistan.’

Recently Wazhma and her colleagues met with the President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai to explain these methods and highlight local women peacemakers. ‘He didn’t know, for instance, that there were women on the provincial peace councils.’ These data were a revelation to him and a thirty-five minute meeting became a two and half hour Q & A session.

The Institute has very limited funding, predominantly from the Institute for Inclusive Security in the United States, with funding also from the governments of Norway and the United States. They not only do research, they use this research to advocate for women’s participation in peace and security decision-making, to achieve public visibility and greater influence in political processes but it is hard to find the resources to do any more than they do already. Wazhma explains that ‘Donors are interested only in short-term projects; for example we have a program “Going Back to Our Roots” about how to use the old ways in Afghanistan to achieve better presence for women, but the donors we approached were not interested because this is a long-term struggle and they only want the quick fixes.’

The protection of women in public leadership positions is a priority for RIWPS:

‘We see this as part of a wider struggle against violence against women; violence against women prevents political participation and even participation in public life. Violence against women closes the doors, so we try to create accountability in the government. We do this by making it personal. We identify female provincial leaders and then introduce them to supportive allies who lobby to make central government and security institutions accountable for their safety. Sometimes it is as simple as getting vehicles for women to travel in so they don’t have to walk long distances alone, but we also do relocation, moving women under threat to shelters and safe houses, connecting them with legal advisors. These strategies help with retention of female leaders. Of course we have documented these activities and we report them to the Ministry and the Parliament, so we can hold them accountable and they cannot say they didn’t know what was going on.’

Violence against ‘political’ women speaking up in public, defending human rights or seeking political office is very common in post-conflict countries and strongly dissuades women from participating in public life let alone seeking political office. In Afghanistan in the last nine months alone 70 women in leadership positions have been assassinated.  In many post-conflict countries new laws to eliminate violence against women are in place but they are not enforced either by police or the broader security sector.

We asked Wazhma is there was something we could do to help, using the resources of the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective (WPSAC) we have formed in Australia and New Zealand:

‘It is always a struggle for time and money. I wrote a paper for an Indian  Foreign Policy Instiute and I did it to generate some money for the two women  that I was helping because there was no other funding available to support these  two women who are struggling for justice. However, I want to stay on the ground  than spend time in writing papers. This is something we could do to collaborate  with WPSAC. Academics in Australia could help with analysis of the data we have  collected and help with report writing and grant applications. We are both  monitoring women, peace and security and we can help each other.’

We agree with Wazhma. WPSAC and RIWPS are natural allies in the struggle to get women to the peace table and to end violence, including that everyday violence against women. Toward that end we are designing our next project with the provisional title ‘Eyes on 1325’. This research will monitor women’s presence in every room where governments or the international community are talking peace and security and analyse the data on what we find in a Census of Women’s Participation in International Peace and Security. We hope such a project might shame the international community when there are no or few women at the peace table. We can’t rely on the UN Security Council Resolutions to make sure women are represented in peace talks but we can hold our governments accountable for their promises to do so under the rubric of UNSCR 1325 and the broader women, peace and security agenda.

Laura J. Shepherd and Jacqui True

University of New South Wales and Monash University