Two years ago, before even direct talks between the Taliban and United States began, the missing voices of women in Afghanistan in peace talks was a glaring problem. It was clear at the time that the rushed attempt by the US government to end the ongoing conflict would undermine the achievements made by Afghan women in the past two decades. The continued exclusion of Afghan women from the peace process will have serious consequences for the future of the country, and the durability of any negotiated peace requires that the commitment to women’s meaningful participation both in peace negotiations and in governance be upheld going forward.
Over a year has passed since the US-Taliban agreement paved the way for the start of a formal peace process with direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, however little has changed. While delegations from both parties have been meeting in Doha to negotiate, violence and civilian casualties have simultaneously increased. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recently reported that after the intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban began, civilian casualties increased by 45 percent in the final quarter of 2020 versus the same period in 2019. The increased insecurity and the continued inability of the government to protect people have led to further erosion of public trust in the whole peace process.
Furthermore, despite extensive advocacy work by Afghan women and the international community to include women in the peace process, their exclusion largely continues. While the Afghan government’s delegation to the talks in Doha includes four prominent women negotiators—something unprecedented for Afghanistan—it is still not enough given that their views are often ignored in such meetings. Perhaps most notable is the recent meeting in Moscow that hosted representatives of both the government and the Taliban, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and US presidential election. There was only one woman part of the 12-member delegation present at the meeting: Dr. Habiba Sarabi. She is also one of the woman negotiators in the Doha delegation. This indicates that neither the government nor the international community take the issue of women’s inclusion seriously, causing huge concern for women about the future of any peace with the Taliban. In her speech in a room full of men, Sarabi stated:
“Women suffer the most from war, but why are we not considered in meetings such as this? It is unfortunately because we are still not part of a political party and…we are still not the leader of a military group that has power…which is why the host countries also don’t consider women…[I am] thus requesting the hosts to take note of this in the future.”
What complicates the matter even more is increased threats and targeted attacks against civil society organizations, journalists, human rights defenders, and women activists, including women peacebuilders. Just recently, three female journalists were killed by gunmen in Jalalabad. One of the suspects arrested was found to be connected to the Taliban. In fact, Fawzia Koofi, who is one of the four women negotiators on the Afghan delegation team, was also attacked by gunmen near Kabul. While she survived, it is still not clear who was responsible for the attack.
UNAMA’s report found that in 2020, women comprised 13 percent of overall casualties. Pro-government forces, including the international military, are responsible for 34 percent of women casualties and the Taliban and the Islamic State for 43 percent. The actual number of women casualties in 2020 is also the highest recorded since UNAMA began documenting them in 2009. The targeted killings of women tripled in comparison to 2019. This new wave of violence against women peacebuilders, journalists, civil society, and rights is a tactic used to silence critics and oppositions. As a result, many educated and young Afghans are leaving the country to take refuge elsewhere.
The government is failing to protect women activists and peacebuilders, and even its own civil servants who are also being targeted. With incidences against women as the main targets of insurgent groups such as the Taliban on the rise, ignoring their agency to be part of a peace process is a paramount concern. Afghanistan has adopted UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, and developed its National Action Plan in 2015. The resolution calls on member states to respect international law and take measures to provide protection to women and girls, especially civilians, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) among others. The Afghan government is therefore obligated to support women’s meaningful participation in the ongoing peace process, as well as to provide them with the necessary protections that ensure their safety. Failing to protect those fighting for peace and human rights undermines any effort to build and sustain peace in Afghanistan.
As the peace talks gain momentum again and the new US administration is finalizing its strategy on Afghanistan, ensuring that women’s voices are sufficiently represented in peace efforts should be a top priority. The international community, especially donors and those that host the talks, should continue to put pressure on the Afghan government and the Taliban to include women in key decision-making meetings such as those taking place in Turkey this April. The recent joint statement by the Group of Friends of Afghanistan is a step in the right direction, but statements need to be translated into action. With support from the newly-appointed UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and Regional Issues, the international community can, with a united voice, call on all parties involved in the Afghan peace talks to prioritize the diverse participation of women as the only means for ensuring lasting peace, after more than four decades of conflict.
Masooma Rahmaty is a Policy Analyst in the SDGs for Peace, and Women Peace and Security programs at the International Peace Institute.