Almost 17 years since the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and NATO forces, stability remains elusive for many Afghans. The economy is crippled. Some 39% of Afghans live in poverty. One in four is unemployed. The country’s GDP per capita remains in the bottom 20 countries in the world.
Civilian casualties due to war are at their highest since 2002, but skirmishes between government forces, ISIS and the Taliban are not the only barriers to peace: violence has seeped from the battlefield into the home. Half of women experience sexual or physical violence from a partner, and more than three-quarters of children experience violence.
The fragile government, intent on fighting insurgents, has limited capacity to improve the social existence of many Afghan women and girls. But peace might depend on it: in Northern Ireland, Liberia and Colombia, women were central to the peace process. And when women are at the negotiating table, peace is 35% more likely to last at least 15 years. For them to participate, however, inequitable gender norms and gender-based violence must be unpicked.
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In 2015, a new project took root in the northern province of Jawzjan that tries to minimise the violence within Afghan communities, even while conflict continues. A local NGO, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC), secured UK government funding to roll out a “peace curriculum” to 20 secondary schools across the province. Lessons, provided over two years, cover active listening, communication skills, peaceful conflict resolution and primers on human rights — notably the rights of women.
Where most peacebuilding efforts focus on high-level negotiations, the peace curriculum focuses on the grassroots of Afghan society. It aims to shift repressive gender norms, and equip citizens with the skills to resolve interpersonal conflict non-violently.
“Many Afghan children have grown up in an environment where they have been physically and emotionally traumatised by continuous conflict and war”
“Many Afghan children have grown up in an environment where they have been physically and emotionally traumatised by continuous conflict and war,” said Abdul Wahid Siddiq, the program manager. Studies show that even witnessing violence in childhood increases the likelihood of perpetrating violence in later life if male, or experiencing it if female. Preventing violence in one generation can benefit generations to come.
The project doesn’t just reach children: an adult’s curriculum engaging religious leaders, government officials and community leaders covers mediation skills and gender-responsive readings of Islamic scripture. The message is disseminated on local radio through panel discussions and serialised dramas.
“One of the ideas fundamentally undermining democracy in the region is the idea that you can impose your will through the use of force”
Its aims are ambitious. “One of the ideas fundamentally undermining democracy in the region is the idea that you can impose your will through the use of force, rather than through discussion and mediation,” said Rachel Jewkes, director of the UK Government’s What Works to Prevent Violence global research initiative, which provided technical assistance and funding to the project. The curriculum will not end years of insurgency, but the hope is that it will strengthen local democracy and build more resilient communities.
The results have surprised even the program’s developers. Violence between schoolchildren fell by half. Girls’ attendance at school improved significantly. The use of corporal punishment by teachers and parents fell dramatically. And rates of depression reduced significantly among boys and girls. A full evaluation report is pending publication, but both Jewkes and Siddiq are optimistic about the future of the program, despite the fragility of Jawzjan’s security situation.
“The reductions we see have come in the context of escalating violence from the Taliban in Jawzjan over the last two to three years,” noted Jewkes. One of the schools implementing the peace curriculum was repeatedly attacked by Taliban forces, preventing HTAC directors from visiting for months at a time. “Substantial” ISIS activity, in Jewkes’ words, also heightened the security risk.
“The program’s benefits radiate out,” said Jewkes, citing anecdotal evidence of communities resolving conflicts using mediation skills taught by the project. The hope now is that the project can expand throughout Jawzjan, and across Afghanistan. Despite support and approval from the Ministry of Education, government coffers cannot stretch to scaling the project. International donors will have to step in if the project is to go nationwide.
“We need to teach children that women are half of the society”
The stakes are high. “It’s about the future of Afghanistan,” said Siddiq. “We need to teach children that women are half of the society — they can be doctors, engineers, and scientists. They are crucial stakeholders in the development of Afghan society.”
With parliamentary and district council elections scheduled for October this year, an uptick in Taliban and ISIS activity is likely. How Jawzjan’s peace curriculum will play out in practice remains to be seen.
(Picture credit: Flickr/DVIDSHUB)