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AWER Summit: Empowering Afghan Women’s Economic Resilience

It had been 898 days, two and a half years, since Afghan girls were banned from school beyond sixth grade, Rina Amiri said to a packed room at the U.S. State Department this week. “As a woman, imagine being stripped of your profession and the capacity to earn and to feed your family,” Amiri, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights, said at the department’s Washington D.C. headquarters. “As a parent, imagine looking into the eyes of your 12-year-old and telling her that she can no longer go to school and the door to her hopes and her dreams have closed.”

Approximately 200 participants had traveled from across the country and as far as Afghanistan for a summit, organized by the Alliance for Afghan Women’s Economic Resilience (AWER), a partnership between Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and the Department of State. Scott Taylor, dean of the Pardee School, who was instrumental in establishing the partnership, attended the February 27 conference and highlighted the “tremendous benefit” of it.

The audience consisted of academics, entrepreneurs, politicians, civil society, and private sector representatives—many of them Afghan women—all invested in AWER’s efforts to mobilize partnerships between the private sector, academia, government, and civil society to support the education, employment, and entrepreneurship of Afghan women and girls.

“Today represents a real ray of light in some of the darkness,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his opening remarks. Blinken, who first announced the partnership in 2022 at the United Nations, spoke of the promises of AWER for women and girls still in Afghanistan and for those forced to flee after the Taliban regained power in 2021.

Since the Taliban took control, most jurisdictions have banned women from traveling, or even leaving their houses, without male accompaniment, according to Human Rights Watch. Women’s professional opportunities have narrowed dramatically, including bans on most work for the United Nations and international nonprofits. And most women who worked in the government have been forced to leave.

Perhaps the most devastating toll, however, came when the Taliban sent all girls beyond sixth grade home from school in 2022, making Afghanistan the only country in the world with such restrictions. Later that year, the Taliban banned women from attending universities. Experts fear repression is growing: The Taliban shuttered beauty salons last year, robbing 60,000 women of jobs, and refused to allow several dozen women to leave the country to study. Afghan women have protested these policies and faced detention and torture.

Not only are these circumstances blatant human rights violations, Blinken noted in his address, they are in defiance of the will of Afghans, almost 87 percent of whom believe in women’s right to education.

Still, Blinken’s address contained sober optimism, which was characteristic of the entire summit: “Women and girls are determined to study. They’re determined to chart their own path. They’re determined to contribute to the future of their communities despite the extraordinary obstacles that they face.”

Blinken outlined three of AWER’s new and ambitious efforts aiming to leverage this determination.

The first is online skills building. This partnership with the Qatari Government, the Qatari foundation Education Above All, and the American company Coursera will make online training in business, entrepreneurship, and web development available to hundreds of thousands of Afghan women. Microsoft and LinkedIn will also give women the opportunity to get professional certifications and get in touch with employers who might offer remote jobs.

The second is scholarships to help Afghan women refugees in the United States get their bachelor’s and master’s degrees, supported by the U.S. government and the Education Above All foundation.

The third is bolstering the Million Women Mentors Initiative for Afghan Women and Girls, which aims to get one million mentorship commitments. Initially started by the tech company Pod, Deloitte has already committed to mentor 2,000 Afghan women and now Microsoft and LinkedIn have joined as well.

“Women represent about half the world’s population and probably well over half the world’s creative, innovative, and intellectual potential,” Kenneth Lutchen, BU’s provost ad interim, said in his address at the summit. “At Boston University we believe in the power of women leadership to transform society and create more than just an equitable world.”

As the educational anchor partner for AWER, the Pardee School has collaborative research already underway, where students, faculty, and female Afghan leaders are exploring ways to increase women’s workforce participation and access to education.

“It makes me very proud to be a BU student and thankful that my university is actively working to address not just Afghan women’s economic inequalities but also women’s gender inequality issues around the world,” said Arianna Ayaz (Pardee’26), who traveled to Washington as part of a delegation of BU students and faculty. Ayaz is half Afghan and still has family in that country, which means the research she’s doing for AWER on ensuring the cultural sensitivity of digital education for Afghan women is deeply personal.

“The fact that I can be a part of working on these issues affecting Afghan women means so much to me,” Ayaz said, “because these women are the most resilient and hardworking and deserve these opportunities and resources. The fact that I can be a part of working on these issues affecting Afghan women means so much to me."

Taylor said the AWER partnership was invaluable and that it was especially important for a school whose faculty and students are deeply interested in policy practice as well as theory. “Underlying all of it, however, is the importance of education,” the dean said. “Where we can provide educational resources, either here in Boston or remotely, we can contribute to the opportunities for Afghan women.”

Summit organizers also sought to draw in the voices of women and girls still in Afghanistan, even while having to carefully protect them from the immense security risks they face for pursuing education and economic equality in the face of Taliban rule.

On each participant’s chair at the summit, and scattered throughout the sprawling conference room on chairs and tables, were letters from Afghan schoolgirls, signed only with a first name for their safety.

One girl wrote: They closed the gates of education for us without any logic, but they don’t know what tomorrow holds. It requires courage, as if you have a gun to your head and yet you pick up a pen to write of faith, of love, of humanity. We will not remain silent.

And another wrote: When school closed for us I lost my hope, I thought all my dreams, all my wishes [were lost]. I will not give up in this situation, maybe today is dark but I find a light for myself.

A third girl wrote about her dreams of becoming a doctor and refusing to let the Taliban stand in her way: I’m going to try for my goal until I have a bright future. If we don’t learn knowledge, we will go the dark way.

This message of techno-optimism in the face of repression rang strong at the summit. During the first panel, Afghan businesswoman and entrepreneur Roya Mahboob said she was lucky to grow up when she did in Afghanistan, during a time when she had access to education and the ability to speak her mind. She described the first time she accessed a computer—a “magic box” that connected you to the outside world and gave you information about anything you desired. It’s what inspired her to pursue a career in computer science and then to start the Digital Citizen’s Fund to support female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and train women and girls on financial and digital literacy.

Those goals are harder under Taliban rule, she says. The all-girls robotics team that Mahboob helped found, known as the Afghan Dreamers, was forced to flee to Qatar. Still, progress advances.

“The physical border of a country cannot stop a woman who has access to education and technology,” Mahboob said.

She added that women are navigating the restrictions creatively, such as with entrepreneurial endeavors in more traditionally female areas like handicrafts, fashion, and food production.

Some of these initiatives were displayed in the State Department’s exhibition hall during the summit, where organizations like Made by Afghan Women, an online sales platform, was strewn with earrings made of bright blue lapis lazuli, clutches hand-embroidered with goldenrod and crimson thread, and scarves with plush layers of lavender and turquoise fabric. Kandahar Treasure displayed scarves, cocktail napkins, and table linens stitched with the intricate, geometric patterns of Khamak—a centuries-old Afghan embroidery tradition. The organization gives female artisans, now largely bound to their homes, jobs that provide economic independence that can bloom into more expansive forms of autonomy.

A video of Afghan female entrepreneurs played between panels. Produced by an Afghan filmmaker, the video shows women with their faces obscured describing organic spice businesses and fruit drying and packaging companies. “When a woman works outside, she feels empowered just like a man,” said one woman in the video.

These are the kinds of women AWER hopes to provide mentorship and training to, giving them a springboard to launch the skills and initiative they already have.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for someone that had taken a chance on me,” said Sofia DeBlanc, who was on the summit’s second panel. A senior manager at Deloitte and an Afghan woman, DeBlanc has helped guide the company’s involvement in AWER’s mentorship initiative. “Incremental progress is still progress,” she said. “And for as long as we keep that momentum up we have made a difference.”

Rachel Brulé, a Pardee assistant professor of global development policy, who leads much of AWER’s research, spoke on the same panel as Mahboob and highlighted the steep costs of gender inequality. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that advancing women’s rights would add $12 trillion to the global economy, with full labor parity bringing as much as $28 trillion. By excluding women and girls, Afghanistan is squandering over a billion dollars a year, according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Group.

The benefits to women’s economic inclusion are manifold, says Brulé, with research showing that cash transfers to grandmothers has improved their granddaughters’ nutrition and that property rights for women can positively impact community health and lower domestic violence rates. Brulé’s own research finds that for lasting change, women’s political representation is crucial.

“It’s really hard to disrupt gender inequality, but when we do, everyone’s better,” Brulé said. “This drives investment in health and education, human capital more broadly, effective economic development, and use of the state to improve collective well-being—and these are the main drivers of long-term, sustainable development.”

In the last panel of the day, Muqaddesa Yourish, former deputy minister of commerce and industry in Afghanistan, expressed her frustration with an attitude she says characterizes much international engagement with Afghan women.

“I’ve been asked to attend meetings and I’ve looked at the agenda and if it’s about making me another Afghan woman victim, no thank you,” she said. What made AWER different, she noted, is that Afghan women were actively part of the work and recognized as “sophisticated agents,” even as they navigated extraordinary challenges.

“As we move forward, I would say my only call for everybody present in the room would be to invest in the agency of the women of Afghanistan,” she said.

It’s a message that resonated with Roamah Baray (Pardee’24), a research assistant with AWER and one of seven BU students who attended the summit.

“While they did acknowledge the past and the current situation in Afghanistan,” Baray said, “the speakers made it very clear that they believed in Afghanistan, its people, and more specifically, in Afghan women and their ability to overcome the challenges that they face.”

It’s something that matters deeply to Baray, whose family came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2000. Her mother wasn’t able to finish high school because of the Taliban’s first regime and today Baray has eight female cousins still in the county who are unable to attend school.

“AWER is important to me as an Afghan woman because I could have been in their position,” she says. “I am here by chance. I am immensely grateful for my access to education and the rights that I have. I think of my family there every day and their inability to go to school, work, or even participate in society as a woman.”

Story by a Abigail Higgins, a journalist in Washington, D.C., with a decade of experience reporting across Africa and the United States.