Re-Imagining Women’s Leadership in an Era of Fragility

UNDP in Asia and the Pacific
5 min readMar 18, 2021


March marks Women’s History Month, with International Women’s Day aptly themed: ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World’.

With the world facing unprecedented health security challenges, women are meeting the new risk with vanguard crisis and security responses. Over 70% of essential workers on the frontlines are women, and yet this is not reflected in decision-making roles with only 24.7% of women serving as Health Ministers, 21.3% as Ministers, 7.2 % as Heads of State, and a meagre 6.2% as Heads of Government.

The health crisis is further magnified in fragile or conflict-affected states; where the secondary impacts of the COVID-19 are increased threat to the hard-won steps towards inclusive peace, compounded by the rise of violence against women and girls. UNDP is working on amplifying the voices of the women working on the ground to respond to multi-faceted peace and security challenges, with the aim that they are equally represented in decision-making, as they are present in crisis response.

N-Peace is a UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub flagship initiative, which works to magnify the visibility of women leaders and Women, Peace and Security advocates. It seeks to amplify the innovative solutions that they have developed for their communities, and advocate for women’s meaningful and substantive participation at all levels of decision-making. The initiative operates in the following countries: Afghanistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Here are some of the stories of the women re-imagining women’s leadership in a global moment of fragility:

Young Women Leaders Re-Imagining Women’s Leadership

Merging the Youth, Peace and Security agenda with the tenants of gender equality, Mahira Miyanji, founded and continues to operate a volunteer-based platform to foster women’s empowerment and girls’ education in Lyari, Pakistan. Often in the face of staunch opposition based on the traditional roles of women and girls, she works to create an enabling environment for women and girls to take up leadership roles; starting with free education. Sensing the growth of football as a community activity, she has engaged the soccer pitch as a forum for community discussions on the importance of equal education. She utilizes moments of play to engage parents, her community, and officials to speak on the value of girls’ education.

Afghanistan has a conflict history spanning over four decades. Young leaders such as Sohaila Rezaee have recognized the trauma of women and girls who have grown up within the legacy of conflict. Violence against women and girls has further been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sohaila leverages her training as a psychologist and conducts art therapy sessions, linked with public speaking training to increase confidence and capabilities of young women, and provide holistic support to the future leaders implicitly tasked with the rebuilding their communities towards peace in Afghanistan.

Thought-Leadership in a Fragile Age

Thought-leadership often requires a balance between new approaches and data-driven actionable solutions. Farhat Asif works at the national and regional level to foster partnerships and create a knowledge-generating base on the realities of women’s leadership in security decision-making and participation in Pakistan. By integrating context-specific research and data collection from women peacebuilders at the community level, and connecting them with policy makers at the national and regional levels, Farhat has fortified a space for dialogue where women’s voices are not only heard, but have substantive impact.

Ruby Kholifah is renowned for her work in promoting context-specific approaches to women’s leadership including promotion of inter-faith dialogues and building networks of women mediators at the community level. Motivated by being a voice for the voiceless, Ruby is using her platform to explore blind spots in women’s participation to emerging challenges of violent extremism — gendered hate speech and misinformation, and policy responses to women returnees. The latter recognizes the reality of women returnees in Indonesia and beyond — the drivers for their recruitment, vulnerability to conflict-related sexual violence, and their rehabilitation in recognition of their power as social influencers and actors.

In Myanmar, May Sabe Phyu takes a similar approach to advocacy on women’s human rights. With intersecting challenges to women’s participation, her work seeks to find intersectional approaches to shared challenges — disabled women’s access to health care, and addressing sexual and gender-based violence. Her approach engages systems-thinking to address the underlying issues of cultural norms and stereotypes that pre-dictate women’s positionality. She continues to work in vulnerable regions of the country to improve access to health-care for populations most affected by the pandemic, including internally displaced persons.

Innovating in the Face of Changing Realities

Zarqa Yaftali has spent her career preparing for this current moment — ensuring that women in Afghanistan are represented at the peace table. Acknowledging the risk of women’s rights being traded-off in the peace process, she has engaged a multi-focal approach to advocacy; engaging the power of social media to share messages directly from women in remote peace contexts, galvanizing civil society, government and security actors alike to the realities of women on the ground. With a background in feminist research in secluded communities, her interventions take an evidence-based approach to virtual advocacy for real world results.

The N-Peace Network continues to support innovative solutions to increasingly complex barriers to inclusive leadership. We have over 126 women peacebuilders and gender-champions in the region, and about 43 women-led civil society organizations reaching over 53,000 direct beneficiaries. N-Peace continues to support new strategies and social innovations in fragile contexts towards inclusive peace. On the 30th of March, the Network will launch a virtual exhibition under the theme. ‘Women, Peace and Security in an Era of Human Fragility’. The exhibition will feature photographs for and by women peacebuilders on the frontlines of crisis response; chronicling their journeys and fight for inclusion. Inching ever-closer to the realization of the adage — “nothing about us, without us!”.

Belinda Hlatshwayo, Women, Peace and Security Coordinator, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub