After Sabrina Saqeb spoke at last weekend’s prestigious Halifax International Security Forum, she was swarmed by high-level participants. Representing militaries, governments, media, and more, they praised her thoughtful analysis and pragmatic suggestions. Dozens invited her to speak at their upcoming events, offering additional opportunities to share her refreshing, grounded, and largely unheard perspectives about a deeply complex country. One ambassador noted, “You were the only panelist who spoke consistently about the future, not just the past.”
Ms. Saqeb, a former Member of Parliament and co-founder of Afghanistan’s first ever think tank focused on women and security, responded kindly to each, saying she’d do her best to come. I stuck beside her like glue, eagerly assuring potential hosts that, even if Ms. Saqeb couldn’t make it, “there are so many more where she came from!”
I meant from Afghanistan, where Inclusive Security works with dozens of accomplished women who speak eloquently about security, governance, political transitions, and much more. And from the rest of our Women Waging Peace Network, which includes over 2,000 women from more than 40 countries affected by conflict. These leaders have the experience, insight, and savvy needed at high-profile international discussions on tough security issues.
In Halifax, Ms. Saqeb did exactly what our founder, Ambassador Swanee Hunt, envisioned when she created the Network 15 years ago. Ms. Saqeb brought to the table an expanded definition of security and a set of insights grounded in the realities of millions of Afghans. Never cynical or bitter, she focused on points of hope and strategies for realizing their potential. Her presence reminded participants that Afghan women are our most natural allies: They have the most to lose from a return to Taliban rule and therefore the greatest determination to reinforce hard-earned gains.
Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ably moderated the discussion and wisely invited Ms. Saqeb to kick off the conversation. Ms. Saqeb emphasized the need to strengthen institutions like parliament and the judiciary, emphasizing NATO and national governments’ over-reliance on the executive branch.
Four-star General John R. Allen, former Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, was among Ms. Saqeb’s distinguished co-panelists. He affirmed her comments and following the session said, “I tell people all the time: No post-conflict society has ever moved successfully into a development era without incorporating the strengths and talents of women.”
In response to the inevitable question about the future for Afghan women following the withdrawal of US troops next year, Ms. Saqeb stressed: “There’s no way that Afghan women will return to the way we lived during the dark ages of the Taliban. We won’t let it happen. The issue is not whether we’ll go back to the way things were. The issue is how hard the fight we have ahead of us is going to be.”
The fight facing Afghan women—and others around the world—is lessened significantly when policymakers hear their voices directly. Too often, the issues women tend to raise are considered peripheral to “hard security” conversations. But the discourse is shifting: In Halifax, many participants highlighted the concept of human security, the growing influence of non-state actors, and the importance of inclusive approaches to building lasting peace and security.
Still, we have a ways to go. This year, though there were more female participants than ever before, an unacceptably high number of plenary sessions—five out of eight—had no women panelists.
As a member of the Forum’s Agenda Working Group, I share responsibility. The organizers are committed to increasing the Forum’s diversity and elevating women’s voices. Such an influential gathering deserves no less. Fortunately, countless talented, insightful, and experienced women—like Ms. Saqeb—stand ready to share their perspectives and expertise.
I can think of 2,000 of them, to start.
Jacqueline O’Neill is the Director of The Institute for Inclusive Security. She is responsible for overall policy, political advocacy, and field research.