No Peace Without Women – Ending The Cycle Of Conflict In Afghanistan

On 24 June, the head of Kabul’s negotiation team, Abdullah Abdullah expressed concern over an increase in violence by the Taliban, stating that it presents a challenge in starting peace talks with the group. This development follows a week during which hundreds of security force personnel have been killed in Taliban-led attacks.

Despite continued discourse on the value and significance of women’s participation in the peace process in Afghanistan, women have been left out of more than 20 rounds of informal talks with the Taliban. Human rights activists are worried that the rights and concerns of Afghan women may be compromised in a rush to achieve a peace settlement. The Taliban claim to believe in women’s rights to work and education.

During the Taliban’s regime in the 1990s, women and girls were denied access to education, employment, freedom of movement and health care. They were also subjected to heinous acts of violence such as public lashings and execution by stoning. The Taliban continue to prevent women and girls today from exercising many of their fundamental human rights. That being said, the group has tried, through statements and interviews, to convince people that it has progressed.

The Afghan government has not been a reliable supporter of women’s rights. In some situations, it has even served as an enemy of the cause.  Both the administrations of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani have often dismissed women’s rights. This has further contributed towards worries amongst Afghan women about the implications of a Taliban peace agreement on gender equality.

A common concern amongst feminist activists is that women are not given a seat at the negotiating table. Earlier this month, eight countries and the European Union urged both the Afghan government and the Taliban to ensure that women were included in peace negotiations. The embassies of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Britain, and the European Union all issued a joint press release calling for the involvement of women.

“History shows peace agreements are more durable and successful when women are fully integrated and engaged. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban must actively include women in all dimensions of the peace process; leadership councils, negotiating teams, consultative shuras, technical and advisory teams.” The press release also calls for men to do their part in advocating for women’s rights.

In 2001 the Taliban were overthrown following attacks by the U.S. and its allies. Though their regime collapsed, they did not disappear. A new government took over in 2004 with support from the U.S. but the Taliban still had many followers, especially in areas around the Pakistani border. The group has stayed strong despite no longer being in power. In a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, experts suggest that the Taliban is stronger now than it has been at any point in recent history. According to figures by the BBC, the Taliban could be making up to $1.5bn per year. Some of this revenue has been made through the drug trade – Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium. The group also make money by enforcing taxes on people who travel through their territory, and through businesses in telecommunications, minerals and electricity. The Taliban has since been trying to re-establish strict Islamic law.

In February, the insurgent group signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the U.S. The agreement includes a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, with a view to an eventual peace settlement with the Afghan government. Peace talks were supposed to start on 10 March this year, days after the agreement was signed. However, they were delayed.

On May 24, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire to mark Eid al-Fitr. For a short while, violence had decreased across many parts of Afghanistan. This indicated to some that a peace settlement was in sight. However, the group has recently been accused of escalating violence. In the past week, there have been over 400 Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. According to Javid Faisal, spokesman for the government’s National Security Council, 291 security force members have been killed and 550 others injured. “The Taliban’s commitment to reduce violence is meaningless, and their actions are inconsistent with their rhetoric on peace,” he stated. The Taliban has denied the latest government figures. When speaking to the AFP news agency, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman in Afghanistan said that “The enemy aims to hurt the peace process and intra-Afghan talks by releasing such false reports.”

One of the key conditions of the peace settlement is that President Ashraf Ghani releases Taliban prisoners. Questions about whether this will happen are further complicating the situation and prolonging the timeline for the intra-Afghan negotiations. According to Nooria Afghan, a women’s rights activist in Herat city, “The Taliban have lied during the peace talks as they have evil intentions.” She then went on to say, “Given their situation at this time and in order to deceive everyone, they haven’t said anything about restricting women. But when they return to power, they will again impose their dark rule on women.” Afghan believes that the Taliban cannot be trusted because of their violent and misogynistic past. “The Taliban haven’t changed from the time of their rule as their policies are still anti-women, and they still don’t approve of women’s participation in civil and political activities in society,” she added.

Afghan women have made huge strides in the past 20 years in the fight for gender equality. Many fear that if the Taliban return, they will undo all the progress that women have made. The contributions being made by Afghan women are evident in all fields including the security sector, government, civil society, the media, as well as in science and technology. Outstanding and courageous Afghan women have fought to be seen and heard in male dominated spaces. As Afghanistan moves forward towards a negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban, women must be fully represented in the process. It is not enough that their voices be heard – they must also count.

Bahara Ahmadi, a women’s rights activist in Herat city, believes that the Taliban are worried about the fact that times have changed. “Our message to the Taliban is that the time of oppressing women has gone, and they need to embrace the current and new circumstances in Afghanistan,” she said. “We women defend our rights and achievements, and we no longer want the Taliban to take women back to the dark era of the past,” she added.

Anjila Ghayur, a women’s rights activist in London states that Afghan women have sacrificed a lot to achieve their rights in the past two decades and they never want to see their triumphs compromised in political deals.  She calls attention to the fact that there are no women included on the Taliban’s peace negotiation team, which further demonstrates “the worst of the misogyny among the Taliban.” According to Human Rights Watch, women’s rights and other issues pertaining to human rights were not mentioned once in the peace document signed in February. This lack of inclusion, combined with the resistance faced by women’s rights activists in their fight for inclusion at the negotiating table, has caused women to fear that their rights could be sacrificed during the peace process.

Just a few years ago, it was a widely held belief by Afghan feminists that there should be absolutely no negotiations held with the Taliban – a group that has treated women as though they are disposable. Today, those beliefs have changed. Even the most radical feminists have, for the most part, accepted that the only way towards peace in Afghanistan is through negotiations with the Taliban.

The protection of women’s rights must be one of the key agendas of the peace process in Afghanistan. However, the only way that this can happen is if women are given a voice in negotiations. Globally, women are hardly represented in formal peace talks. Data from the UN shows that not only are women rarely present when these negotiations take place, the specific rights of women and girls are seldom reflected in peace agreements. A 1992-2011 study of peace processes reveals that out of all signatories to peace agreements, only 4 percent have been women. Further to this, a mere 18 out of 300 peace agreements signed in the years 1998-2008 specifically addressed women’s rights and concerns. As women struggle to have their voices heard, government officials in Afghanistan argue that efforts are being made to include women.

When speaking to the Salaam Times, Anisa Sarwari, director of the Herat Department of Women’s Affairs has said that “If the Taliban think that they will again shut down women’s freedoms and their participation in social and political activities when they return to power, they are making a big mistake, because the international community, the Afghan government and women themselves won’t let them do it.”

“Women constitute a core part of the government and society,” added Sarwari. “No individual or group has the ability to overlook women’s [fair] share of power. If the Taliban intend to limit women’s role, they will face a harsh reaction from women.”

As peace talks loom, Afghan women are in the fight of their lives. It is the duty of the Afghan government to support them.

Anita Mureithi

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