While the backlash against expanded rights and freedoms for Afghan women has been gathering momentum in recent years, so too have efforts to create more opportunities for women in Afghan society. Here are five reasons to be hopeful.

1. Progressive urban youth

As the international community’s presence in Afghanistan begins to shrink, a generation of progressive Afghan women who came of age in the years following the fall of the Taliban regime is rising to challenge their country’s harmful traditions and attitudes more loudly than ever before. Disappointed with the slow pace of reform over the past decade, a group of Afghan feminists their teens and twenties formed Young Women for Change in April of 2011.

Led by a core group of university students and activists, YWC aims to fight the deeply-rooted beliefs and inequalities that underpin the oppression of women in Afghanistan. YWC members aren’t content with gender quotas in government institutions and progress on paper. They want to see progress in the everyday experiences of Afghan women –and they work for it tirelessly.

Since its founding eleven months ago, YWC has carried out an advocacy campaigns around the right to education for girls, supported the production and screening of a member-directed documentary about street harassment, sponsored events celebrating the works of women artists and poets, held public discussions about women’s rights under Islamic law, raised funds for the medical care of victims of gender-based violence, and coordinated a large, grassroots winter clothing and fuel drive for residents of internal displacement camps in and around Kabul. To kick off International Women’s Day on March 8, YWC opened Afghanistan’s first women-only internet café –the Sahar Gul Net Cafe, named after a teenage girl whose harrowing story of abuse and survival prompted more Afghans to openly discuss the consequences of forced and underage marriages. The project was crowd-funded and will be run as a self-sustaining social enterprise –a major departure from the donor-centric project model used by most Afghan NGOs.

Voice of America filmed the grand opening of the new cafe.

YWC is now expanding its network into other areas of Afghanistan and has begun reaching out to urban young people outside of Kabul, as well as in the global Afghan diaspora. Its membership already includes many of the most progressive, service-minded, media-and tech-savvy young women and, crucially, young men active in Afghan civil society today.

YWC’s founding members are adamant about engaging young men –Afghan women’s brothers, fathers, colleagues, friends and husbands– as allies in the struggle for gender equality and challenging the media narratives that have long reduced Afghan women to helpless, faceless victims of oppression. Their unorthodox approach is stirring controversy and winning new volunteers.

2. The slow but steady empowerment of rural women

It’s often said that the progress of the past decade has left Afghanistan’s rural women untouched, and their lives unchanged. But that’s not entirely true. While rural women remain drastically worse-off than their urban peers, broad-ranging efforts to empower rural women and improve their quality of life have yielded benefits for tens of thousands of Afghan women living in small villages and on remote farms.

Midwife training and maternal health education programs are one great example. These initiatives have put a 22 percent dent in maternal mortality countrywide between 2000 and 2010, according to the UNFPA. Midwives trained through some of the most effective aid programs in the country have saved the lives of thousands of women and babies in their own grateful communities and continue their heroic work every day. Award-winning midwife Maliha, a 25 year old from the impoverished and mountainous north of the country, told the UNFPA, “It is a huge responsibility to help these women and save their lives, but I feel lucky to have this opportunity to help other women.”

Financial empowerment initiatives such as women-run village banks, vocational training programs, and microfinance groups have also given women in some remote areas of the country greater say in decisions within their families and communities by putting money directly in their hands for the very first time.

The Aga Khan Development Network recently released a beautiful video that highlights the progress made by Afghanistan’s rural women. It’s definitely worth watching.

3. A press that is breaking the silence around violence against women

Until a few years ago, Afghanistan’s media largely ignored violence and discrimination against women. All of that has changed. Afghanistan’s vibrant press frequently reports on crimes against women all over the country. Harmful traditional practices such as forced marriages and the use of girls as collateral have been thrust into the spotlight whereas they had previously been treated as private matters not open for public discussion. Today, they’re laid bare in all of their brutality.

Stories such as that of Sahar Gul, a teenage girl forcibly married, tortured by her in-laws, and confined to a cellar for months on end, have gotten Afghans beyond the usual civil society circles openly talking about violence against women for the first time. Since last year, Afghanistan has even had a nationally-televised talk show devoted to the frank discussion of previously taboo subjects, such as rape.

Although news spots such as this one about Sahar Gul can appear intrusive and even insensitive to survivors of violence, they have nonetheless broken the longstanding silence around some of the most brutal and enduring violations of Afghan women’s human rights.

Media coverage of crimes against women is also forcing policy-makers to pay attention and take action. In response to public outrage over Sahar Gul’s case, Afghan president Hamid Karzai condemned the abuse of the teenager and requested that a special police unit be created to apprehend the perpetrators. Even a year earlier, the torture of a 15-year-old girl in a town far from the capital might have been dismissed as a sad fact of life, rather than treated as a national scandal. Still amateur and male-dominated, Afghanistan’s news media is challenging taboos and initiating long overdue conversations.

4. Women are in politics to stay

During the violent months leading up to Afghanistan’s 2010 parliamentary elections, Afghan women braved bombs, death threats, and the scorn of conservatives to run for office, work on campaigns, and carry out political rights monitoring. Women campaigned for seats in parliament in greater numbers than ever before, and 69 of the 249 seats in the National Assembly are now held by women.

Although women candidates didn’t win any many seats outright (without the help of Afghanistan’s parliamentary gender quota) in 2010 as they did in 2005, the involvement of women in the 2010 elections –in spite of  the dangers– showed that Afghan women have no intention of giving up the rights they’ve fought for, or letting their country be governed by men alone.

5. Civil society is finding its voice

In the face of the conservative backlash and the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban, Afghan civil society groups have stepped up to remind decision-makers from Kabul to Washington, DC that the rights of Afghanistan’s women aren’t a bargaining chip.

Organizations such as the Afghan Women’s Network have become more vocal, better organized, and more strategic in their advocacy. They have made concrete demands for women’s inclusion in any future peace process, and they won’t let the international community forget its promises to protect the rights of Afghan women. They have been present at successive international conferences on Afghanistan, reminding the diplomats and military officials in attendance that Afghanistan’s women are building the society they want to live in and demand nothing less than their rightful place at negotiating table.

Featured Image: Anita Haidary, Young Women for Change

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