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Leading Change: Featuring Hossai Wardak

Article by Sara Van Wie August 28, 2013 //   7 minute read


Women in Afghanistan have experienced incredible progress over the last ten years, and the hard-won gains of the last decade must not be reversed. Girls have returned to school to become educated, like their brothers, and women are serving as provincial governors and members of the National Assembly.  Their stories inspire us, and remind us of what is at stake for Afghan women.
As part of the Women’s Initiative Afghan Women’s Project, we have launched a blog series that spotlights the success stories of courageous Afghan women and girls.  


The beginnings of her career in activism stemmed from Hossai’s experience as a refugee in Pakistan.  As a teenage refugee, Hossai was unable to access the formal education system in Pakistan, and economic hardship common to refugee families required Hossai’s parents to prioritize education for their oldest children.  Fortunately, when Hossai’s sister began work as a teacher in an English school, a family scholarship benefit allowed Hossai to continue her studies.  When she reached the 11th grade, Hossai also began work as an English teacher.  Her life was a very busy one - she attended high school in the morning, taught English in the afternoon, and with her personal earnings, paid tuition for local computer classes in the evenings. 

Together with other teachers, Hossai formed a youth group that sought to gather young Afghan refugees and create a platform for them to voice their concerns and solve common problems.  Her consistent leadership among youth organizations opened doors for Hossai to participate in groundbreaking youth conferences after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.  During these conferences, young Afghan leaders gathered from around the world to create platforms for youth civic engagement in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.  Hossai proudly tells how these conferences resulted in the establishment of the Ministry of Youth in Afghanistan and the Afghan Civil Society Forum, which continues to serve as a vital platform for a variety of civil society organizations in her country.


When asked to recount her proudest moments as a female activist in Afghanistan, Hossai tells of her extensive work with religious leaders.  As an employee of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Hossai strategically targeted local religious leaders in her efforts to reduce maternal mortality and violence against women.  Her creativity in naming programs helped her gain access and build rapport with male religious and community leaders.   For example, her course “Healthy Family Relationships from an Islamic Perspective” facilitated community-level discussions on difficult issues such as birth spacing and domestic violence.  By utilizing Qur’an-based teachings relative to the protection of women and women’s health, Hossai was able to advance women’s rights objectives in a culturally sensitive and sustainable way.  In a country where religion is often used as an instrument to prevent women from realizing certain rights, Hossai treasures stories from religious leaders of how they implemented changes within their own families.  “Among all the frustrations around me, [they] gave me energy to move ahead.”

During her tenure at the United States Institute of Peace, Hossai served as a Senior Expert on Afghanistan, and contributed vital grassroots perspectives on the gains and challenges facing Afghan women.  Hossai admits that advances in women’s rights in Afghanistan have been slow, but she emphasizes that the steady change in people’s perception and attitudes towards women should not be disregarded.  “Perhaps it is not on a very large scale, but there are quite a number of people who now think that women are human beings, and that they have rights that we need to watch over.”  Hossai warns against the dangers of short-term funding structures that require hard achievements within unrealistic timeframes.  “Changing the attitudes of this country that has been at war for decades will take a long time.  Expecting Afghanistan to be a Switzerland in 10 years is too high of an expectation.” Hossai recommends long-term assistance that remains results-based but that also allows time for sustainable change to take root. 


Hossai currently serves as Deputy Director of Equality for Peace and Democracy (EPD), a civil society organization that she co-launched with friend and fellow activist Nargis Nehan in 2010.  EPD utilizes national budgets as a monitoring and accountability tool for government service delivery, with specific focus on the health and education sectors.  EPD “looks at how much money came in to these sectors in the last 10 years, how it was spent and what people are saying about the quality of services they received.”  EPD has quickly emerged as a key technical partner in issues pertaining to budget planning, implementation and monitoring.  In 2013, EPD was the first non-governmental organization to complete an analysis of the national budget during the Parliamentary process. 

Hossai comments that EPD emerged from a desire to equip Afghan citizens to hold their government accountable for quality service delivery.  EPD works closely with local civil society organizations that are interested in monitoring services at a provincial level.  “I always believed that if we want to tell our Afghans to change, then we must tell them how to change,” Hossai says.  She believes that local monitoring skills will equip Afghan citizens to hold local government leaders accountable and will serve to build the Afghan democratic process.

Despite tremendous obstacles, Hossai draws strength from her work.  “I feel an energy being in Afghanistan.  I am in my own country, I work for my own government, and I work for my own people.” 

Click here to read more stories from the Leading Change Series.