While some believe the ongoing US-Taliban peace talks could be the beginning of the end of Afghanistan’s 17 year war, Afghan women increasingly voice their concern that hard won rights could be bargained away. “After the 1996-2001 oppressive Taliban rule, the women of Afghanistan came out of the dark. We will never go back”, says Mary Akrami Sahak, director of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), Cordaid’s longstanding partner in the promotion of justice and peace.
Recently, high level talks with Taliban representatives took place in Doha, with the US Peace Envoy, and in Moscow, with Afghan opposition leaders. Though the absence of the government of on both occasions was conspicuous in the eyes of many, it’s the absence of the Afghan civil society and women in particular, that really undermine the outcome of the talks, according to Mary Sahak.
“For me, these aren’t peace talks as such, but preparatory talks at the most. None of the negotiations so far included women. None of the high level participants had thoroughly concerted with the people they represent, the Afghan people, before going to the talks.”
“It is unthinkable that the Afghan Women’s Network would take part in any kind of discussion or negotiation”, Mary Akrami continues, “without carefully listening to women in all corners of the country and bringing their concerns and demands to the table. So far, the so-called peace talks lack this kind of democratic legitimacy.”
Nothing less than a revolution for Afghan women
Yet, there is a lot at stake. While news outlets mostly focus on deadly attacks, rising insecurity and increasing Taliban control, Mary Sahak wishes to highlight the positive transformation her country went through after the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. It’s the gains of this transformation – nothing less than a revolution for women – that she fears could erode if the current man-only negotiations with the Taliban continue.
“It’s incomparable”, she says. “Before, women hardly were allowed to leave their houses. Today, we can walk freely, without burqa and without male escort, throughout the country. Before, there was not a single school for girls. Today more than 250.000 girls go to private schools and universities and millions of girls go to public schools. The scale and quality of women’s education is even better than the pre-Taliban era.”
3500 activists from all walks of life
And the list goes on. Access to justice has increased, there are safe houses for women in many parts of the country. And political participation – with women ambassadors, ministers and members of parliament – is growing. The Afghan Women’s network, with over 150 member organizations and 3500 activists from all corners and walks of life, has been in the fore front of this struggle for progress. And nothing will keep them from defending it.
“Every individual member of AWN represents hundreds of other women”, Mary Akrami explains. “Together we stand for all Afghan women, which is more than half of the country’s population. In every province we take to the streets, we push for reforms and we shape policies. We have the constitution on our side, we have democratic institutions. We will never allow the bitter memories of the past to become realities again. Peace can never come without justice, and a peace deal that does not warrant women’s rights, is not a peace deal.”
Girl schools in Taliban controlled should re-open
In Taliban controlled areas, bitter memories have already become realities. After the US-Taliban talks in Doha, the Afghan Women’s Network clearly stated that trust building measures of the Taliban should include the re-opening of girl schools in areas they control. They should protect women’s NGO offices from attacks and ensure that female health workers have access to their place of employment. So far, there are few signs of improvement. Forced displacement, indiscriminate violence on civilians, stoning of women and men, closing schools and the erasure of women from public life are common in Taliban controlled areas, according to AWN’s statement.
To protect what Afghan women have gained and to prevent a further dissolution of women’s rights, Mary Sahak and her network of courageous women, have come with clear demands. No peace deal should undermine the current democratic and public institutions. “These institutions have provided employment to women, educated them, given them skills, lowered their mortality rates and have provided them with relative security”, they say. No peace deal should come with restrictions on women’s employment, freedom of movement and autonomy. If it did, this would not only curtail women, it would be disastrous to the country as a whole. No peace deal should suspend Afghanistan’s commitments to the international and regional legal instruments and laws that safeguards women’s rights. Any peace deal has to prevent the infliction of physical punishment such as public stoning, flogging and executions.
“We have changed, and we have changed our country”
These demands are the outcome of intense concertation among women in all 34 Afghan provinces. “I travelled to 15 of them in the past 6 months”, Mary Sahak explains. “Every village, every women looks at peace from a different angle. But the demands in our statement reflect common concerns. And everywhere, women stand up and raise their voice. We are no longer the generation of the ‘90’s.
fghan women have changed and we have changed our country. We will not allow backward minds to meddle with our country and with our lives. This week women from all over the country will gather in Kabul. We have one message to all men in Afghanistan: We, women, will not go back. And we call upon all women around the world to support us. It’s the unity and solidarity of women around the globe, that can truly set things in motion.”