The Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh is hosting the first Grassroots Women’s Political Leadership Forum, being held in conjunction with the US State Department.  I’m here with a courageous group of Afghan women leaders, who are participating along  with other regional women leaders from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, to focus on developing skills to become more effective and to learn from each other.   This colorful crowd (literally) is full of smart, dedicated and diverse women.  They are from countries at different stages of the democratic process and with challenges that span cultures and continents.  But women in this region are leading, and we were all stunned to learn that India currently has 1.3 million women serving in panchayats, the very local councils that make a myriad of decisions affecting people’s daily lives in that country.

At the first day’s session where the delegations outlined their expectations for the conference, the Afghan women were remarkable, talking about what they hoped to learn and also the importance of networking with women from other countries.  They focused on the need to put pressure on all sectors to increase opportunities for women in Afghanistan and also encourage women to take part in the political process.   These expectations only underscore my view that Afghan women are smart, strong, ready to lead, and if given the chance they deserve, will help Afghanistan move forward.  They indeed face great challenges, but are also able to be clear about their goals and how to reach them.

The other delegations also set out high expectations – looking for skills to lead community and political change, developing linkages with each other and becoming as effective as possible in the public sphere.  All in all, an amazing way to start thinking about how these women and millions more like them can be catalysts for change and progress across South and Central Asia and beyond.