To all the Afghan women gamechangers

10 July, 2021 Aurélie Salvaire

After many years working in women empowerment and diversity in neighboring Pakistan, I was given the unique opportunity to come to Kabul for six weeks to deliver an exceptional Leadership training course for our Afghan women staff.

It had been six months in the making.

The intensification of the conflict between the Talibans and the Afghan army, the imminent withdrawal of the International Military Forces probably leading to a darker future, the current drought plaguing the country and on top of it all, the multiple waves of Covid epidemic did not make it easy.

The armored vehicle that welcomed me went through the multiple security check points and crossed the town to join the ICON compound, east of the airport.

Surrounded by thick walls and barbed wires, constantly overflown by helicopters or military planes displacing Afghan troops or evacuating American military, the working atmosphere is relatively tense to say the least.

Afghanistan is one the most challenging duty stations of WFP, and the third largest operation in the world so the security concerns are omnipresent. Every day, security alerts flood your email account, each staff member must report their presence by radio check before 10pm, and the surrounding fireworks celebrations or carrier blasts can often be misinterpreted for worse.

The universe is suddenly reduced to your room, your office, the cafeteria and the gym for six weeks out of seven. And Covid has just added an extra layer of tension in this already anxiogenic environment. Given the fourth wave currently happening and the saturation of local hospitals, masks have to be worn at all times, gatherings are reduced to four people and the contact cases are immediately isolated in their rooms for 14 days. So the atmosphere is far from festive, and the dreaded PCR results are the gateway to the sporadic family or friends reunions. That is, if the commercial flights are not suspended and the evacuation measures not in place.

So kudos to our international team on the ground.

Yet, this is nothing compared to our national staff’s reality, and especially our women national staff, putting themselves at risk every day for working in a UN agency in the current political context. Most of them prefer to not mention it to their family or friends, and do not appear on LinkedIn or any social media.  

The country office has made significant progress in the last two years passing from 47 national women staff in September 2018 to 82 now amounting to 19% of the total and four more under recruitment. Instead of sending a few chosen ones to international trainings in Bangkok, the HR decided to give the opportunity to all the national women team, even the ones from the field offices who flew in specially for the occasion from Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat, Faizabad or Mazar-e-Sharif.

Each cohort of 10-15 participants gathered in the dimly lighted UNHCR bunker for three consecutive days and, despite the social distancing, managed to create special bonds among each other. They practiced public speaking imagining themselves future presidents of Afghanistan, they shared tips on how to navigate a hostile working environment where they might not always be as valued as they should, they mapped out their professional and personal objectives in a volatile world. They have identified the structural barriers limiting their progression and explored solutions at an individual and systemic level.

The participants have shared their role models such as Afghan poet Rabia Balkhi or national heroine Malalai of Maiwand. They have also learned to know themselves better through MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) tests and sharing their lifemaps. They have learned about the different types of leadership (autocratic, delegative, democratic…), the difference between a boss and a leader, and the qualities of inclusive leaders.

We talked about self-care, sisterhood and empowerment. The Country Director came every week to share her lifepath and her experience coming from an Irish family of 11 kids and rising to the cusp of leadership in the organization. This training is part of the capacity development effort since most of women national talent is still quite junior and there is a strong aspiration to reach leadership positions at national or international level in the coming years. The strong bonds among them will be instrumental in the months to come to maintain their motivation intact and ultimately cross the glass ceiling to the highest positions.

In a national context where only 19% of the women participate in the workforce and the adult women literacy rate is 20%, these women are an exception.

They are smart and bold. They are resilient and powerful.

They are the future of the country. And I am truly honored to have met them.

Nobody deserves more our admiration than the women national staff of WFP Afghanistan.

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