On International Women’s Day, A Closer Look at the Missing Voices of Women in Afghan Peace Talks

Independent Afghan artists draw on a barrier wall of the Ministry of Women's Affairs to mark International Women's Day in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), an annual spotlight on women’s rights and a celebration of the cultural, social, and economic contributions that women around the world have made and continue to make. Since the first IWD gathering in 1911, women’s rights have advanced in many ways, although notable obstacles remain. Of these, one has particular implications for all countries: the limited role of women in peace negotiations.

An increasing number of studies demonstrate that peace processes that substantively include women tend to result in a more durable and sustainable peace. Unfortunately, women’s overall exclusion continues to be the norm throughout peace negotiations in current conflicts. A closer look at one of these conflicts, Afghanistan, offers unique insights into why women must be included at all levels when peace or a cessation of violence is being negotiated, particularly given the history of women’s rights under the Taliban.

More than a few attempts have been made to end the eighteen-year war in Afghanistan, most notably the ongoing direct negotiations between the United States and the Taliban over the last year in Doha, Qatar. Simultaneously, Russia has hosted direct peace talks with the Taliban in Moscow. Both sets of meetings did not include the Afghan government, although a number of prominent Afghan politicians were part of the talks in Moscow.

The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently announced that he hopes to seal a peace agreement before the Afghan presidential election in July. While it remains uncertain whether this target can be achieved, these talks have brought the prospect of an end to the conflict closer than ever. While the exclusion of the Afghan government is an important concern, a greater one is that Afghan women—who suffered the most under the Taliban regime before 2001—are severely under-represented in these negotiations, and there are no indications that their rights are being championed.

The US and Taliban continued their negotiations in late February, following up on the previous agreed upon framework that had the following priorities: that the Taliban will not use Afghanistan as a haven for terrorists again, and that the US will pull out troops from the country. To date, there has been no public indication that the status of women in Afghanistan has been discussed, nor have there been any women present during these negotiations. While the Afghan government was also not formally present in the continuation of peace talks in Moscow, there were two women participants in the delegation with major power brokers, including Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan. When the women raised the question of women’s rights, however, they were met with “quiet.”

A rush attempt by the US to end the conflict will likely undermine the achievements made thus far by women in Afghanistan in the area of government, private sector, education, and press freedom, to name a few. Rightfully, Afghan women and rights groups are concerned that these achievements will be fully reversed. In recent weeks, Afghan women rallied together to express their concerns about the US-Taliban peace talks. Afghan Women for Peace organized a jirga (council) on peace that convened over 3,500 women from 34 provinces. President Ashraf Ghani announced his support for the jirga, underscoring that any peace process must include women and that men and women have equal rights under the Constitution.

It is important to consider what is at stake if the status of women is not clarified during peace negotiations. There is no doubt that women in Afghanistan have made significant progress since 2001, especially in urban areas. In the government, a quota system has helped women to now account for 28 percent of representative in parliament, which is more than the 19 percent in the US Congress. The results of the 2018 parliamentary election haven’t been announced yet, but of more than 2,500 candidates, 417 were women.

Many women have also been appointed to prominent positions, including the appointment of Roya Rahmani as the new ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States, and Adela Raz as the permanent representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations. The number of women working in both the public and private sector has also increased and they have played a major role in shaping the Afghan media. In a recent visit to Kabul, I noticed women, hired by municipalities, sweeping and cleaning the streets alongside men, something that was unimaginable for women to do during the Taliban regime.

Furthermore, more women and girls go to school than ever did during the Taliban’s rule. Kabul University, in partnership with the UN Development Programme, launched its first ever master’s degree in Gender and Women’s studies, and 22 students—men and women—graduated from the program in 2017. Also, for the first time, the government announced it would build a women’s university in Kabul. An Afghan All-Girl Robotic Team has been competing globally and winning prominent competitions such as Robotex, Europe’s largest robotic festival, as well as competitions in the US. While there are still major obstacles for women and girls to access education, the opportunities available to these groups are significantly better than before 2001. Under the Taliban regime, women and girls were banned from attending school, and women working outside the home or having a role in government were all out of the question.

Despite this progress, women continue to face violence and rights violations in contemporary Afghanistan, especially those living in rural areas and areas controlled by the Taliban. During the meetings in Moscow, Taliban representatives indicated that they will change the current constitution, viewed as Western made, and that the “policy of the Islamic Emirate” will be “to protect the rights of women in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.” Based on this language, it is premature to assume that the rights of women will be protected when the Taliban become part of any interim government, given that their justification for how they treated women while in power was based on “Islamic Emirate” principles.

Of all the actors involved in peace negotiations, no one wants peace more than Afghans themselves. However, the loss of basic rights and freedoms for women in the name of peace is a questionable and likely unsustainable strategy. With the current approach to peace negotiations and what appear to be hasty steps to end the war in Afghanistan, sidelining women will have serious consequences for the future of the country.

It is important to note that substantively including women in negotiations is in line with US government policy. When the US launched its war on terror and later invaded Afghanistan, one of its justifications was to fight for the rights of Afghan women and children. After the Taliban were overthrown, the US announced its support for the participation of Afghan women in all aspects of government and society. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” Laura Bush, who was then first lady, announced in 2001. In the US Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, the importance of an equal participatory role for women in conflict resolution and their role in peace agreements is acknowledged. Khalilzad has himself verbally stressed the importance of providing space for women’s inclusion in peace talks. Given the involvement of the US in Afghanistan since 2001, the US government should remain committed to its espoused principles.

The UN and many governments recognize that to sustain peace, meaningful participation of women in all peace processes is key. In Afghanistan, member states and international organizations can support the voices of Afghan women and work to ensure that women are included by their government in negotiations and that their rights are embedded in any future government arrangement. In doing so, working to support Afghan women civil society’s voices in the peace process—such as the Afghan Women’s Network and Afghan Women for Peace—will be paramount.

Masooma Rahmaty is a Program Administrator at the International Peace Institute (IPI).