09/05/2012 18:21 BST | Updated 09/07/2012 06:12 BST

A War That Only Women Can Win

Last Wednesday's car-bomb attack on Kabul - just hours after President Obama's surprise visit declaring a "new chapter" for the country - underscores how far we are from the goal of achieving a lasting peace.

The visit itself highlighted a number of key issues in the Afghan quagmire, coinciding with a Pentagon report to Congress. The report found that despite an improvement in security across most of Afghanistan, there remain "long-term and acute challenges", primarily from the militant insurgency operating "with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan", and ongoing "corruption" in the Afghan Government.

Despite assuring NATO troops that "we must finish the job" and "end this war responsibly", the new strategic partnership agreement President Obama signed with Karzai suggests that US involvement - both military and otherwise - is far from over. Apart from committing the US to supporting Afghanistan's "social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation" for 10 years, the agreement allows for the continued presence of NATO military forces to "access" and "use" Afghan facilities at will, "for purposes of training Afghan forces and targeting al-Qaida" - hardly a major departure from current policy.

However, the anxiety over the countdown to the withdrawal of troops by 2014, coupled with the ongoing need to maintain security, overlooks the fact that this war can never be won by guns and bombs. Not only do the keys to victory lie in the hearts and minds of the Afghan and Pakistani people - they can be found specifically in the hearts and minds of the region's women.

So far, the victimisation of women in this conflict has been neglected despite their central role in justifying the rationale for NATO intervention. Over half of all Afghan women are depressed, and 78% suffer from chronic anxiety disorders. According to Human Rights Watch, some 400 women and girls are imprisoned for "moral crimes", having fled forced marriages or domestic violence. Indeed, violence against women is at epidemic proportions. According to an unprecedented national survey of women in 4,700 households, 87% had experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage. Seventeen per cent reported sexual violence and 11% had experienced rape.

Across the border in Pakistan, where militants operating in Afghanistan still find ample safe-haven, women face similar crisis conditions. The latest report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan finds that eight million women are employed as unregistered domestic servants, and are therefore unprotected by labour laws.

After the 2010 floods, among the most vulnerable victims were 120,000 pregnant women facing malnutrition in unsanitary conditions. Indeed, the vast majority of the 75% of Pakistanis who live below the poverty line are women. Nearly a thousand women have been brutally murdered by members of their own family in the name of 'honour'. To add insult to injury, a major domestic violence bill was deferred last month, following strong resistance by opposition parties including the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F). This begs the question: why should the safeguarding of women's rights be at the mercy of political whims?

Although it is easy to sink into despair when faced with these problems - and lawmakers' deeply unsatisfactory responses to them - all is not lost. One of the most empowering responses to these challenges comes in the form of grassroots poverty alleviation work in some of the poorest and most remote areas of Pakistan. The flagship model for this work is the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), the country's largest civil society network of NGOs active in two-thirds of Pakistan's districts, reaching 30 million people.

The RSPN has trained and enlisted more than two million women into local community organisations, given them access to affordable micro-finance, secured pioneering micro-health insurance plans for them, and delivered skills training to 1.3 million. This is the largest outreach of any Pakistani organisation to women. The goals of RSPN's gender work are to maximise their opportunities for employment, to ensure their contributions are recognised, to allow them greater freedom and mobility outside the home, and ultimately to facilitate their involvement in decision-making in the local community. Although there remains much work to be done, 72% of women receiving support from the RSPN confirm an improvement in their household status.

The secret of RSPN's success is two-fold: firstly, a philosophy of community-driven development, and secondly, long-term targets aimed at creating lasting sustainability rather than quick results. The model is based on fostering robust, local civil society organisations through which communities themselves make decisions about what projects they pursue based on identifying their own needs and priorities; and then proceed to pursue, maintain and monitor their execution. As Joshua Foust observes in The Atlantic, "what the RSPN shows is that focusing on the small scale, and on the hyper-local, is actually a more effective way of developing isolated, poor, rural communities", than larger, more traditional development programmes often funded by international aid.

In terms of women's participation, recent research carried out by Shaheen Rafi Khan and Shahrukh Rafi Khan reveals that women have been more effective in running local support organisations than men. Not only have they successfully challenged a conservative culture, they have effectively filled in spaces vacated by men.

Zohra Bibi is a case in point. Hailing from Chaho Labano, a village in northern Sindh which is known for its high rate of honour-based violence, she was forced to stay illiterate. A few years ago, a public leadership role would have seemed out of the question. Today, she is the leader of 22 community organisations (COs) comprising 323 women from the nearby areas. Zohra Bibi has negotiated key improvements to her neighbourhood, with help from the Village Organisation. After a young boy was killed during a cattle robbery, she persuaded them to set up a community-based security system for Chaho Labano. Zohra Bibi is also passionate about education, having restored functionality to the only school in the village.

The proven success of the RSPN model has been carried over into Afghanistan, through the vehicle of the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), where over 100,000 women have been enrolled into Community Development Councils in rural communities in all of the country's 34 provinces. Again, the results are dramatic. In conservative Pashtun communities, women are empowered to participate in development initiatives outside the home, to make key collective decisions through women's shura councils, to learn new skills, and to access education.

Arguably, development aid has been far more effective in building resilience to extremism than the war. By generating "significant improvement in villagers' economic wellbeing", the NSP's work has transformed "their attitudes towards the government", according to an independent assessment, thus "reducing the number of people willing to join the insurgents."

As NATO troops prepare to withdraw, we must recognise that the real work in Afghanistan and Pakistan has just begun. The imperative now is not to revel in a questionable military victory, but to throw renewed efforts - and international aid - into pioneering rural development programmes like the RSPN and the NSP. These have undoubtedly boosted long-term stability, by empowering women and their families. Once these programmes are scaled up on a national level, the region will have its best chance of making a lasting recovery.