Empowering Afghan Women: Ruby Ajanee MC/MPA 2009

RUBY AJANEE IS THE COUNTRY DIRECTOR for Oxfam in Afghanistan, where she leads a team of more than 300 staff who are helping to rebuild the nation after decades of insecurity, war, and disasters.

“In Afghanistan, Oxfam provides humanitarian aid and contributes to the economic development of local communities through rural and urban livelihood programs,” says Ajanee, “all while building the capacity of civil society to strengthen grassroots democracy.”

Empowering people is a hallmark of Oxfam’s efforts. “You can only open doors for the local populations to enable them to change themselves and their communities,” says Ajanee. “I always remind my local colleagues that they are the ones who have the answers and the capacity to make decisions about themselves; our job is to empower them and create an environment where their efforts can produce desired results.” Oxfam has, since it started supporting Afghanistan in 1961, always worked with and through local partner organizations.

Ajanee credits her MC/MPA degree for much of her current strategy, especially the adaptive leadership skills she learned from Professor Ron Heifetz. “Afghan culture is very hierarchical, and many Afghans are not empowered to make decisions. Through the practice of adaptive leadership, I guide my staff to take responsibility, learn to solve problems, and make decisions,” she says. This allows her to build critical thinking skills in her local staff and prepare them to respond to a stressful and constantly changing environment.

A project close to her heart is improving the working conditions of Afghan policewomen. With a local partner, Oxfam has conducted several interesting studies on the working conditions of women in the Afghan police force, exposing the appalling conditions in which women are working. In Afghanistan’s conservative society, it is still very challenging to advance on women’s inclusion in the security sector. “Given the persisting challenges, we have made it a priority to put a program in place that will help change the conditions of the few courageous women joining the police force by creating a safer environment for them to work in,” says Ajanee. This involves everything from changing perceptions and cultural norms to appointing ombudsmen in the Ministry of Interior to installing separate restrooms for women.

Despite her high ambitions, Ajanee is also realistic about what can be achieved in a challenging environment such as Afghanistan. “None of us could change the world singlehandedly. We can, however, empower people who could change their own lives and help others. The real and sustainable change is the change that comes from within and not when it is imposed,” she says. Change like this slow but deliberate. One sees the results over a long period of time.” With her leadership, Oxfam in Afghanistan is determined to make a measurable difference in the lives of Afghan women and men.