Building Bridges – Women Parliamentarians for Regional Understanding

Visit to Berlin and Brussels

Women’s participation in political decision-making and their networking beyond borders play an essential role for peace-building in the region. This is one of the most important lessons learnt from a delegation visit of Afghan and Pakistani women parliamentarians to Berlin and Brussels in early November 2015.

Women’s participation in political decision-making and their networking beyond borders plays an essential role for peace-building in the region. This is one of the most important lessons learnt from a delegation visit of Afghan and Pakistani women parliamentarians to Berlin and Brussels in early November 2015. Within the framework of the hbs research project ‘Reviewing Gender Quotas in Afghanistan and Pakistan’ a delegation of women parliamentarians and civil society activists from both countries together with the lead researchers went on a tour to present and discuss the findings of the first publication with German and European stakeholders. As the question of gender quotas is directly linked to questions of the quality of a political system in terms of inclusive political representation and participation the comparative policy paper Unmaking Political Patriarchy Through Gender Quotas critically deals with quota designs, practices and experiences of women parliamentarians. Drawing from individual country researches, the authors PhD Andrea Fleschenberg dos Ramos Pinéu and PhD Farzana Bari (Quaid-e Azam University, Islamabad) identify commonalities and differences of gender quotas within the national level parliaments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They contextualize women’s political participation in a volatile environment and gender democracy worldwide and come to the conclusion that gender quotas do work but their modalities matter. The policy paper ends with food for thought for political practice, which was discussed with political representatives and experts during the delegation visit.

This article reports the reflections of the delegates from Afghanistan and Pakistan on their joint meetings in Berlin and Brussels as well as the sensitive relationship between their countries, which became manifest, but was at the same transcended during this joint tour.

Together with the researchers, Shinkai Karokhail, Shah Gul Rezaie and Sabrina Saqeeb from Afghanistan and Shaista Pervaiz and Shazia Marri from Pakistan debated ideas and developed strategies to increase the influence of women into politics. The most important finding was the need to interact and establish a boundary-bridging exchange on a frequent basis with each other and to network in pursuance of developing mutual understandings and overcome misperceptions and mistrust stemming from the ongoing conflict between the two countries.

In Berlin the delegation came together with representatives of the Foreign Federal Office and the Afghanistan/Pakistan division of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as members of parliament of the German political party Alliance 90/The Greens. As part of civil society and academia the delegation met Barbara Unmüßig, head of hbs and experts and students from the South Asian department of Humboldt University. In Brussels the delegation group spoke with representatives from NATO, the Desk Officer Afghanistan of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and members of the European Parliament from The Greens. The meeting with the non-governmental organization Oxfam as agents of civil society on an international scale completed the tour. Besides the findings of the study and the experiences of the parliamentarians, the role of the international community in protecting women in conflict situations and strengthening women’s rights in politics marked the main topics of discussions.

All talks traced the basis for gender equality in a stable democratic system. For Afghanistan, the parliamentarians emphasized a democratic state could only be achieved with women included in the peace talks. The Afghan parliamentarians criticized the international community to include Taliban in negotiations but to exclude women’s needs and recommendations. They further requested the international community to not only provide financial help but also moral and political support. To enhance gender equality they demanded that the international community should exert pressure on men and warlord-dominated governments and link their cooperation with them to certain conditions. The Pakistani participants reported how female parliamentarians are subjected to policies made on the women’s behalf without having a say. They also stated that during the last years the space for women activism was shrinking and activists would face increasing personal insecurity regarding their work. The group as a whole sharply criticized that on the international agenda of intervention and peace building social issues like people’s sufferings, especially of women and children seemed to have been put on the back burner. The group constantly called attention to the violence women, especially activists and politicians, in this region would face. Shinkai Karokhail, an Afghan parliamentarian, reported how she had to leave the country in 2014 for three months, because of a planned suicide attack against her. The women demanded that for future foreign policies between Europe, NATO and the South Asian countries political participation of women and electoral reforms in terms of gender equality should be preconditioned. In this respect both sides emphasized the importance to practically implement the UN resolution 1325 in the whole region. The discussions also went beyond women protection and addressed an all-including approach of conflict resolution in the region. Development and peace were considered to be the same side of one coin. The Afghan parliamentarians criticized the decreasing international attention towards Afghanistan and stressed the importance of donor accountability and the need for sustainable aid and long-term solutions. They named religious extremism and the rule of warlords as the most dangerous spoilers towards peace and development. All sides identified terrorism and religious extremism not as a regional but as a joint and global problem.

During formal discussions and within the individual interaction the Afghan and Pakistani parliamentarians soon figured out that in order to create a mutual understanding within their group on the Afghanistan/Pakistan conflict personal face-to-face exchange was crucial. The women stated that mutual insights and joint action was the only way to overcome the ongoing ‘blame-game’ and to build up a peaceful society. Regional cooperation was considered even more important than receiving general support from external actors. The key to lasting peace on a national level was seen in ending the regional conflict. The role of the international community should lie in the assistance to facilitate a reconciliation and negotiation process. In the role as a third observing party to monitor the process and apply pressure on spoilers the help of the international community was deemed to be of major significance.

Resulted topics from the discussions in Berlin and Brussels

Overall the delegation tour was seen as an important opportunity to inform European political stakeholders about the countries’ situations and ask for international support, especially to support women in conflict situations as they face special challenges. In particular the Afghan women parliamentarians considered it important to represent their country’s current situation. Shah Gul Rezaie stated it was a rare chance to talk on behalf of Afghan women to European policy makers who exert significant influence with their decisions on strategies aimed at Afghanistan, ‚It was a good opportunity to talk to NATO and a chance for Afghan women to raise their voice and speak out what happens in Afghanistan’. Also because of the currently deteriorating security situation and the decreasing international interest and engagement in Afghanistan and the region the delegation group, especially the Afghan parliamentarians welcomed the timing of the tour.

Shaista Pervaiz, a parliamentarian from Pakistan, stated that one point which became clear through the discussions was the identification of the root of the conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan. ‚It’s not only this region that is affected, it’s the whole world.’ Due to the number of external actors in the Afghan-Pakistani conflict she regarded it as a global conflict which takes place in the South Asian region and therefore insisted on a shared responsibility to find a solution.

Further topics that resulted from the discussions outlined that women parliamentarians from both countries face similar problems in their political work: Parties structured on patriarchal basis, male resistance against gender quota and shrinking spaces for women activism still limit the capacity to act. In this context UN resolution 1325 was discussed and the need for implementation was stated. The international community could support with putting pressure on the respective governments to protect and include women into peace processes.

The most important topic that evolved during the delegation tour stated by all delegation members was the rather unique encounter and exchange between the groups of parliamentarians coming from Afghanistan and members of parliament from Pakistan. In the course of the tour the group felt need to improve this exchange on a regular basis and institutionalize it in form of a cooperative network. For all group members it was the first time to come together as parliamentarians and discuss women’s political issues with their respective counterparts face-to-face. It was felt that a common discussion was not only needed for the topics on the delegation’s agenda as stated above but also to figure out the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan to identify misunderstandings and misperceptions and find a way of talking with each other.

Lessons learnt

Regarding the delegates’ own political work the visit to Berlin and Brussels served as a learning and exchange platform. ‘It was a sharing and learning experience for us because people from the same region came together. We share similar issues and experiences.’ (Shaista Pervaiz). Shinkai Karokhail was inspired by the Pakistani women parliamentary caucus and was interested to build up a counterpart in Afghanistan. Shah Gul Rezaie stated what she has learned from Europe: The Schengen-State, which holds together the several EU member states and by that constructs a uniform area of security and justice. She regarded the Schengen-State as a model for peace from which the South Asian region could learn. She also highlighted the importance of the meeting with NATO representatives, as NATO is an important stakeholder in Afghan politics, to learn from and at the same time influence their strategies, ‚Their strategy is important for us. Mistake strategies have mistake achievements. We asked them to have women included in the negotiation processes as pre-condition for peace talks.’ 

All women from the group gave great importance to what they learned together from each other: accepting its others past and history and what has happened on both sides of the countries borders. Regardless, whether the negotiations between both governments hadn’t proved to be fruitful the group was determined to improve an exchange on a people-to-people and MP-to-MP level as part of their own political work. Farzana Bari highlighted the need to network across the border. Members of both parliaments, as well as especially secular and critical thinking people needed to unite and speak with one voice in both countries in order to create a difference, she said. Referring to the term strategic essentialism she stressed the necessity that different people with different opinions find together on a common ground and figure out commonalities as their basis to work together to bring a greater change.

For women members of parliament, Farzana Bari stated, only passing through the legislation couldn’t be enough. Parliamentarians and caucuses had to group with other women movements. Quota seats within the government were indispensable but at the same time were only an intermediate step to the point where women were able to build up a constituency to campaign for direct seats in the Pakistani parliament. Also both Pakistani parliamentarians, Shaista Pervaiz and Shazia Marri, agreed to the need to move from gender quota to direct seats. Discussing the findings of the research by Andrea Fleschenberg and Farzana Bari, Shinkai Karokhail said the study reminded her about her role as parliamentarian:

I’m a woman. I came from the reserved seat by the quota system. I have a special obligation to fulfill. As women, we need to support each other within the whole region, we cannot act as individual players. We cannot ignore each other because we are too important for each other.

The implication of UN Resolution 1325 could improve the participation of women in decision-making processes she further added.

Shaista Pervaiz explained how she learned that meetings and talks on a frequent level would contribute to peace in the region to clarify misunderstandings, mistrust and misperceptions:

‚It was difficult to communicate and to get our point across as Pakistanis. And it was difficult to accept what they were saying. But by the end of the trip we were sitting together, we were talking, we were sharing and we were trying to find a solution.’

Different perceptions on the priorities of the European policy-makers

The individual members of the delegation shared very different opinions on how they perceived the priorities and perspectives on the conflict of the German and European policy makers during the visit.

Shinkai Karokhail put it pragmatically saying that every country had its own priorities and reasons to pursue certain strategies.

Shah Gul Rezaie sensed that Afghanistan was seen as the root of the problem in South Asia. NATO and other policy makers during the tour would have claimed that all regional conflicts and terrorism had its origin in Afghanistan. She indicated that the international community indeed strived for fighting terrorism and by that aimed to bring peace to Afghanistan but by regarding Afghanistan as the source for terrorism their fight would start on the wrong level: ‚Why don’t they ask basic questions? Where are the centers, who finances them [terrorists]?’ Shah Gul Rezaie and other parliamentarians claimed that terrorism wasn’t only a national phenomenon but interrelated with donors from all over the world and with different regional ideologies and must therefore be seen as a global problem, not as an Afghan domestic issue.

The Pakistani parliamentarians perceived that Afghanistan was treated as the primary area of interest. The events in Afghanistan and its future were the main concern of the several stakeholders, Shaista Pervaiz said. In contrast, she felt that the whole belt should have been treated with priority, including Pakistan and also India. Shaista Pervaiz further criticized that Pakistan has been neglected not only during the delegation visit but also from the international community in general. During the delegation tour she had the feeling that Pakistan was regarded as the cause for Afghanistan’s bad situation. She wished a better understanding and more commitment from the western world:

‘We fight for peace and against terror across the border and we loose our soldiers, brothers. […]. I really feel bad when there is terror because of Islam and it hurts when people say that Pakistanis are terrorists. Because we are at war within our own country. And it’s not easy, believe me. It is difficult when your fathers or sons go out or your children go to school and you don’t know if they will come back.’ (Shaista Pervaiz)

She also reminded that Pakistan during the Soviet Occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980’s hosted three million refugees what for a short time had changed the picture of Pakistan in the world completely. Although the international interest and support has gone now, she underlined that the country still gave refuge to more than 1.5. million Afghans.

Farzana Bari otherwise saw the agenda and positions very balanced. But she sensed that the European interlocutors would understand the Afghanistan/Pakistan conflict as an internal conflict and would leave aside the historical dimensions. They disconnected the conflict from global politics and saw it as a result of internal politics, which in her view is not the reality. The delegation group constantly kept on reminding that the conflict’s shared responsibility was not only regional but also global.

Way forward: Interaction with the regional counterpart and the need for future cooperation

The members of the delegation described the coming together as parliamentarians from Afghanistan and Pakistan as a challenging start,

‚We clashed with the Pakistani parliamentarians and so did they. In the beginning we were all very defensive, everybody represented only the government’s position. There was a lack of communication. What women need and want was only slowly defined.’ (Shinkai Karokhail).

Looking back however, as already has emerged in the previous sections, all parliamentarians considered the joint visit as an indispensible chance and expressed the need to repeat and intensify this kind of exchange.

For the way forward the most important point mentioned by the parliamentarians was to enlarge and intensify the exchange between each other. The program that has started with gender quotas ended up in a larger perspective: Regional cooperation and networking between women stakeholders in order to bring peace and security to the countries. The delegation agreed that, the tour to Berlin and Brussels has been a starting point. Now they aim to develop a network not only between the attendant parliamentarians but also invite other parliamentarians and representatives of media and civil society organizations. Up to now everything is disconnected, Shinkai Karokhail said, that couldn’t bring change. Also Farzana Bari remarked that the contact so far, via Internet and social media, was not enough. People need to meet face-to-face, the group agreed. A people-to-people, women-to-women approach would create a cross-bordered understanding. Some group members considered including other regional countries, especially India. Only with a view on the whole region a sustainable solution could be found. As first important topics to work on, the women highlighted fighting terrorism and developing economic cooperation.

Shah Gul Rezaie remarked that the process to an institutionalized network would need observation of an external third power that would be present and could act as a neutral mediator. To put all these ideas into practice Farzana Bari concretely said:  ‘First and foremost we need financial funding and facilitators. It needs resources to meet, sit together, working out an agenda. We also need research on that agenda because we must speak with evidence.’ After a while the network would sustain itself, but in the beginning financial support was needed.

As a first follow-up step for enhancing regional trust building, the delegation group met  a few weeks later again in Islamabad for the joint panel ‚South Asian Women Parliamentarians for the Rights of Women’ of hbs Pakistan and Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in the course of the 18th Sustainable Development Conference titled ‚Securing Peace and Prosperity’. In the roundtable discussion the delegation group together with other Pakistani women parliamentarians and women representatives from India worked out challenges within their own political work as well as possibilities for a regional cooperation. In order to identify common grounds on specific issues, they worked on the topics of regional peace building, climate change and fighting corruption in electoral politics.

Challenges the working group on corruption carved out were the gap between males and females in terms of resources, whereas women face restricting within a culture of bribery and patronage.  Further on the group stated that buying a gender-quota seat during elections was easy, which showed that these seats are considered to be only of little value and further reinforced the reasoning to not take women seriously and to sideline them. The group working on women and climate change summarized, that women issues were inseparably linked to climate challenges: food crises and damages of livelihood would affect above all women as they rely on the support of men and also have to provide food and shelter for their children. As result of the discussion on peace building the group collected that the participant’s respective regions would face similar problems: whereas women are the primary victims of various hardships like conflict, war and structural violence, they are not part of peace building processes.

Also the joint panel of hbs and SPDI dealt with possibilities of building up regional cooperation. All working groups suggested creating platforms to share experiences and exchange ideas and by that extend women influence and saying in politics. The group working on anti-corruption saw the need in building up a joint anti-corruption caucus. Veena Siki from the South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) India spoke for the group working on regional peace building from a women’s perspective. Referring to development reports she claimed that gender equality increases with increasing national GDP. Based on this assumption she recommended an economic cooperation between women among the region. Speaking on behalf of SWAN she planned to start a forum within SAARC with special focus on women rights. Veena Siki further proposed to SDPI to hold a cooperation meeting with parliamentarian women to discuss future networks among women in the region. At this point she also emphasized that men should be included in the process.

The process started by the delegation visit to Berlin and Brussels has already strengthed the ties between a small group of women parliamentarians from Afghanistan and Pakistan and helped to enhance understanding. During the meetings in Islamabad, the parliamentarians underlined their joy to see each other again and the trust they have started to build up within the group, ‚Today it was such a pleasure to meet them again. A big difference to the first meeting. They see that we also suffer. That changes things. Now we can have exchange programs.’ (Shaista Pervaiz).

Hbs will try to support exchange programs and invite Pakistani parliamentarians to Kabul for the launch of the Afghanistan research study on Gender Quotas in April 2016.