Human rights defender and aspiring peacebuilder, Elham fled Afghanistan in December 2021, five months after the Taliban’s take over. Currently a peace activist and gender advocate with the Swedish Institute Leader Lab, she sees the Women’s Peace Leadership Programme as part of a new beginning to achieve peace in Afghanistan.
From school banishment to one day becoming a lead negotiator
When the Taliban first came to power, I was in primary school, and like thousands of other Afghan girls, I was banned from attending school for five years. Both my parents are teachers and my mother started a school for girls in our home, so I could continue my education, hidden from the sight of the Taliban. When the government changed, I was able to resume my studies and complete high school. During my first university years, I realised my heart lies with activism and I went on to pursue my Master’s studies in International Relations at Kardan University.
My education path was tough, but I was able to get a good job, working at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as a national gender specialist and prior to that with the Swedish committee for Afghanistan as a senior human rights officer. One of the reasons I joined the OSCE Women’s Peace Leadership Programme is to be trained as a peacebuilder. Someday, at the negotiations table with the Taliban, I can tell them face-to-face that ‘here I am, one of those Tajik girls you once banned from education, and now you have to listen to what I am saying’. Women are not weak. Men and women can achieve what they wish and can work equally and together toward peace and prosperity.
Afghan women who managed to flee
For us, it feels as if our bodies are right here, but our souls are still in Afghanistan. It was really difficult for me to leave my home. Before, whenever I travelled, I saw it as an achievement, but this time I was confused: should I feel happy that I saved my life or sad because I lost my country? I can’t quite describe it, but it was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced.
When I arrived in Sweden, I had no home, no job and was just waiting for the government’s support. It was really tough to accept the ‘refugee’ label. I feared that I would lose my identity. In Afghanistan, my education and my experience had value. I was worried that it would not matter in Europe. Being selected to join the Programme helped me realise that there are opportunities for me here, although I do have to build my career anew. Not from scratch, but it is definitely a new beginning.
Finding the agency within own community
We have very little first-hand information about the events in Afghanistan. Most documentaries or written works published are created by non-Afghans. Participating in the Programme made me realize how critical it is that the world hears Afghan voices.. I have engaged more with other Afghans in my network, who work as researchers, writers, and journalists, and encouraged them to publish more about our country’s issues.
I believe that Afghan civil society needs to take time before coming forward with solutions to build sustainable peace. We need to process our feelings first and think critically of why the conflict started and the reasons behind this lack of trust between Afghans throughout our society. I also realised that we need more subject-matter experts. One of my first takeaways from the Programme is that it might not be a good idea to confuse diplomats with mediators. Those are two distinctly different roles, and both are needed.
An address to Afghan decision-makers
The day I received the email that I got accepted into the Programme, I felt proud. It gave me confidence that I can grow in this new environment as well. I also feel lucky that one of the former Afghan parliament members, Fawzia Koofi, is a mentor in the Programme and I can learn from her so that our generation of peacebuilders succeeds. I don’t know yet in which direction exactly I should be rebuilding my career, but I want this to be the kind of work that ensures sustainable peace for my generation and generations after us.
If I get to speak to our politicians today, I am sure there will be tags put on me: too young to be addressing these issues or simply ‘a woman’. Still, I am very keen to be part of this conversation.
I would tell them that at the decision-making level, every seemingly small issue should be taken very seriously and that politicians should be working beyond their personal interest towards the national one. This time, we really must not fail. Throughout the history of our country, there have been generations and generations of Afghans who did not get to experience a peaceful environment. My message as a mediator would be that at least your and my generations, now, should achieve peace for Afghanistan.
Elham Kohistani, peacebuilder and participant of the OSCE Women’s Peace Leadership Programme (OSCE/ Luiza Puiu)
Elham Kohistani (right), during the kick-off week of the OSCE Women’s Peace Leadership Programme, next to Tsira Kakubava (left) a peacebuilder and Programme participant from Georgia (OSCE/ Vera Djemelinskaia)
Elham is one of the 12 mentees from around the OSCE area and Afghanistan, participating in the OSCE Women’s Peace Leadership Programme. The Programme aims to strengthen the ability of women to meaningfully engage and influence peace processes at all levels. It is a part of the OSCE’s flagship WIN for Women and Men project, which covers the Networking platform for Women Leaders including Peacebuilders and Mediators. The WIN project works with OSCE-supported networks and gives rise to new networks, fostering women’s participation and leadership, as well as broader men’s engagement in achieving gender equality.