Afghan women’s concerns should be addressed in peace talks

By: Lailuma Noori

It’s been nearly a year since U.S.-Taliban talks renewed hope that a broader Afghan peace process could set the country on the path to end its decades of conflict. Now, as the U.S. and Taliban are potentially on the cusp of a deal, the stakes for Afghan women are particularly high. They fear that their hard-won rights might be a casualty of peace deal, returning the country back to the draconian Taliban era.

In recent years, Afghan women have begun anxiously monitoring news reports for threats to their safety from a new source: a peace deal with the Taliban. The Trump Administration’s launch of negotiations with the Taliban, last year, startled many women in Afghanistan. For more than ten months, talks in Doha, Qatar, took place behind closed doors, women were largely excluded, forced to watch the news each night for snippets and rumored details regarding their future.

Since the U.S.-Taliban talks began more than a year ago, female activists in Kabul and other provinces of the country and their international supporters have mobilized to ensure women’s voices are included in the negotiations. However, significant less attention is paid to the composition of women’s representation.

Women have not experienced the same gains across the country and thus have different experiences and views on peace, extremism, constitutional rights and their broader place in society. It’s largely been in Kabul and other major urban centers where women’s rights have advanced most.

Although the government has appointed women in key positions in different ministries and independent organs, but still they fear of their progress if Taliban join the peace process. Afghan government and President Ghani in particular have time and again assured women that their rights would be preserved in the talks and that on one would be allowed to undermine their role and the achievements made so far.

In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, women’s rights are often restricted by social norms that privilege men over women. Strict limitations on their public role, and unfair expectations at home, have restricted women to a small sphere in Afghan politics and decision-making. Not surprisingly, a lack of education and security concerns rank high among hurdles that women must overcome before engaging openly and widely in Afghan society. But there is hope. Women have turned toward education, especially the new generation. Women’s role is increasing day by day, which makes them more powerful in the community and workplace.

Meanwhile the Taliban leaders have time and again assert that they are not the same group that flogged and stoned women in the nineteen-nineties. They say the Taliban no longer opposes female education. But many Afghans suspect the group is simply paying lip service to the international community. In the country’s conservative rural areas, it would take a colossal shift in culture for the Taliban and for rural men to accept the freedoms that women in cities currently enjoy.

At the least, it would require a peace deal that compels the Taliban to respect these freedoms. Without Afghan women at the table, such terms are unlikely to make it into any peace deal. Although Afghan government has assured that women would be included when the intra-Afghan talks began, but more efforts needed to increase their role and support their freedom when signing the deal with a group that are know for violence against women and gender discrimination.

To preserve women’s gains and block Islamist groups from imposing their view of women’s rights, Afghans negotiating with the Taliban, as well as the international community, must take seriously the red lines set down by Afghan women. It is important to focus simultaneously on women’s right to participate in the process; have their rights protected in any agreement; and ensure that adequate institutional mechanisms and resources are available to implement and uphold the terms of an agreement.

Women’s rights groups and NGOs have played a pivotal role in providing legal, social, economic, educational, health and psychological services to millions of Afghan men and women. A peace agreement must explicitly allow these groups to continue operating without restriction; their staff must be further empowered and protected from persecution and unjust treatment in the name of Sharia or local traditions.

If an end to the conflict is the genuine goal of the warring parties and their backers, they will respond to women’s demands and place women at the center, not the margins, of their efforts.

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