Over the last 17 years, the United States of America has engaged in backchannel talks with the Taliban to little avail. But for the first time in years, a peace process is underway in earnest in Afghanistan. In early February 2019, landmark peace talks took place in Doha between Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and the Taliban representatives that have promoted the possibility of a negotiated peace further than any previous attempt in the 17-year-long conflict. Renewed hope that a political settlement with the Taliban could be reached has been fostered by some development such that a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the Taliban agreed that peace will require agreement on counterterrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, and a cease-fire (Luce, 2019). Such developments have led to an increased expectation that the 17-year war in Afghanistan could be brought to an end.
However, one necessary and most essential voice has largely been absent: Afghan women. Women and an agenda on women’s rights were largely absent from the peace talks and a total absence of women in the talks provides a reminder of the harsh treatment of Afghan women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The absence of women in the talks proves that how centered on male concerns this peace process is and how Afghan women’s gendered roles are still regarded as subordinate to Afghan men’s. This shows that Afghan society is still patriarchal in nature and Afghan men take decisions for Afghan women in their absence and on their behalf.
However, Afghan women, in the past 17 years, have made significant contributions to literature, diplomacy, economic development, political reform, and drafting legislation. Any political settlement and peace process must recognize these contributions and the sacrifices that have been made during decades of war by Afghan women to provide an enabling environment for women in order to develop further their potential and skill and cultivate a more tolerant and inclusive society.
Peace talks and women’s exclusion
In Afghanistan, the conflict has greatly affected women. During the regime of the Taliban prior to 2001, women were even denied of their basic rights such as right to education, freedom of speech, leaving the house without a male chaperone, and above all, they were mostly facing public executions and beatings. In spite of the women’s gradual improvements, women’s rights still remain a serious concern in Afghanistan. Participation of women in politics is low at both national and local levels. Women’s sense of insecurity and rates of illiteracy are also still common (World Economic Forum, 2019). Additionally, the health and demography survey conducted in 34 provinces of Afghanistan shows that 61 percent of women and girls in the country face different types of domestic violence; however, they keep the problem secret. Also, a new survey conducted by the Central Statistics Organization reveals that 84 percent of Afghan women are illiterate and only two percent of the women have access to higher education (Jahanmal, 2017). According to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) index which provides measures of various indicators on women’s empowerment, wellbeing, and rights, Afghanistan ranks at the bottom, in 152nd place out of 153 countries (GIWPS, n.d). Thus, the ongoing conflict is the main obstacles to women’s empowerment and development in the country.
Taking this into concern, the absence of Afghan women in the peace talks means more than a failure of political correctness. This indicates that Afghan women do not know what is going to happen in their lives and what would they experience in the future; the days of women’s oppression by the Taliban could return if the enshrined women’s rights in the constitution is not guaranteed by the talks, and will be upheld in any future power-sharing arrangement. This reaffirms the notion that the aim of a peace process should mainly be to build a lasting peace not only to end violent conflict. The absence of Afghan women and their voices in the process casts doubt on the type of peace that these talks would bring to the country (Jung & Cóbar, 2019). Also, women’s exclusion raises several concerns to women and discussions have consistently centered around: fear of betrayal by male politicians; fear of loss of what has been achieved on behalf of women, particularly provisions for the basic rights of women in the constitution; and fear of a reversal of some rights which were returned to women after the fall of the Taliban (Moghaddam, 2018).
With this in mind, there is an emerging consensus and growing body of evidence which shows that broader participation of women in peace negotiations contributes to the durability and quality of peace after the civil war. While peace processes that are exclusive provide examples of fragile peace at the expense of women, such as the Sudan-South Sudan peace process that shows how the formation of gender-blind institutions has been led by marginalization and exclusion of women in the post-war period. The exclusion caused women in South Sudan remain extensively absent from political power and decision-making. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another example which shows how low-level participation of women in the peace process and gender inequality contributes to legal violence and discrimination against women (Jung & Cóbar, 2019).
Afghan women, despite having a significant influence in society and the myriad roles they play in grassroots and community-level peacebuilding, including as peacemakers, peace activists, political leaders, educators, civil society leaders, and humanitarians; they are generally excluded from the peace talks and formal levels of negotiation. Women’ exclusion is a good indication of the lack of broader inclusivity in peace processes. And lack of inclusivity of Afghan women casts doubt on the type of peace and its durability that these talks would bring to the country.
Women in the Afghan peace process
A recent study explored by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPR) shows that women inclusion in peace processes and their meaningful participation is central to having a gender perspective within peace processes. Indicators of the inclusion of women in a peace process introduced by SIPR such as participation, representation, incorporation, protection, recognition, and gender power relation do not focus solely on direct representation at the negotiating table (Cóbar, Günther & Jung, 2018). While another study by the International Peace Institute (IPI) suggests different modes of participation that can increase women’s inclusion in peace processes. These modes range from direct representation, consultative mechanisms, commissions, and high-level problem-solving workshops, to public decision-making and mass action. Moreover, a peace process would be more successful and lasting when a combination of modes of inclusion are introduced and implemented thoroughly for the inclusion of women throughout the process (O’reilly, Suilleabhain & Paffenholz, 2015).
This is in line with another research study which demonstrates that collaboration between women’s civil society groups and female delegates contributes to higher implementation rates of provisions of an agreement (Krause, Krause & Bränfors, 2018). Those linkages can be seen in examples like Guatemala, El Salvador, UK/Northern Ireland, and Papua New Guinea. This result has special implications for Afghanistan given that, in the post-Taliban period, Afghan women have constructed active collaboration among women civil society groups (World Economic Forum, 2019).
Prior to the current international talks that are taking place; Afghan women had been represented in peace talks between various armed groups and the government in different ways. For example, an inclusive commission generally famous as the High Peace Council, which the majority of the members are women including two on the Executive Board, created broad networks with women groups, civil society, gender focal points, and girl’s schools throughout the country. Also, provincial peace councils and the Afghan Women’s Network, which is a network of more than125 organizations, have also served as consultation mechanisms to lead local peacebuilding efforts, raise public support for the process, and to broker deals for the reintegration of former combatants. A recent example was in early 2019, where the Afghan Women’s Network gathered opinions in a document from a broader constituency for the Moscow talks, titled ‘Afghan Women Six-Point Agenda for Moscow Peace Talks’, which brought Afghan women together from rural and urban areas as well as the diaspora (World Economic Forum, 2019).
However, by a lack of direct involvement of women in formal peace processes overshadows such active participation of civil society, as seen in the current negotiations. In twenty-three rounds of international talks between 2005 and 2014, there were only two occasions where Afghan women present at the table: the 2010 talks in the Maldives (9 percent), and the 2011–2012 talks in France (10 percent). Given that composition of various modes of participation is a positive factor for the quality of peace, the exclusion of women from the formal peace process could undermine the achievement of sustainable peace within the Afghan context (Council on Foreign Relations, 2019).
Sustainable peace in Afghanistan
The bottom line is Afghan women want peace but they also want to have a voice in the peace process and how it is negotiated. Exclusion of women from the negotiation table undermines chances for an effective, inclusive and long-term peace. For a peace agreement to be durable, the inclusion of women is necessary throughout the process. Indeed, studies demonstrate that the women inclusion in peace negotiations paves the way to peace agreements that are representative of the needs of the people they affect and, thus, more durable. Negotiations in Colombia, Northern Ireland, and the Mindanao region of the Philippines all showed better results and vital shifts once women were strategically included in negotiations. In the Colombian peace process, for example, women were represented through four models of participation: (a) direct representation at the negotiation table, (b) consultations, (c) inclusive commissions, and (d) public decision making (Ahmadi & Nahavandi, 2018).
According to the United Nation Women reports, women’s simple participation as passive observers without a specific role in peace talks enhances the chances of a successful peace agreement by 64 percent and their meaningful participation as mediators and negotiators improve the success rate even more. U.S. Congressional research finds women are effective in “resolving disputes through non-violent mediation and negotiation, stabilizing societies [and] peace negotiations are more likely to succeed and to result in durable peace agreements when women participate in the peace process” (Ahmadi & Nahavandi, 2018, para. 5).
At the Moscow talks, the chief negotiator of the Taliban has stated the commitment of the group to all rights given to women by Islam, saying that ‘Islam has given women all fundamental rights — such as trade, ownership, inheritance, education, work and the choice of partner, security and education, and a good life’(Higgins & Mashal, 2019, para. 12). Considering the oppression Taliban in the past, the sincerity of this statement is questioned by some women. In this context, pushing for women’s inclusion and gender issues in the formal peace process, which has been criticized and lagged, would be a strategy to harness not only the Taliban’s willingness to sustain the momentum of current negotiations but also their acceptance of women’s legitimate concerns.
Women’s exclusion in peace processes has intense consequences and repercussions for the rights of women in post-conflict. But in Afghanistan, where rights of women remain precarious, and this failure to address consistently women’s rights and opportunities will reinforce gender injustice. Effective inclusion of Afghan women at different levels and phases of negotiating table and in consultations beyond the formal talks is a vital step towards a legitimate, sustainable and lasting peace in Afghanistan and would ensure that women’s recent gains are not lost.
By Amina Zurmati and Qudratullah Zurmati (sophomore students of Political Science and Public Administration at American University of Afghanistan)