As hopes rise for a peace deal in Afghanistan after 17 years of war and strife, many Afghans are raising concerns over the exclusion of vulnerable groups – particularly women – from peace talks. This outcry is associated with fears about the durability of advances that have been made in women’s rights since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. Many women fear that in a post-deal scenario where the Taliban are a part of a new Afghan government, their newfound rights will be rolled back. As Rahima Jani, an Afghan lawmaker, told The New York Times after a round of talks between the United States and the Taliban in January, “Afghan women want peace too, but not at any cost.”
Women account for almost half of the Afghan population, and research from other contexts shows that women are affected by conflicts in many ways, including loss of family, economic insecurity, and sexual violence. For these reasons alone, women’s rights should be at the center of any Afghan peace agreement. Moreover, the participation of women in other peace processes has been shown to increase a peace agreement’s likelihood of success. Thus, backpedaling on women’s rights in order to make a deal with the Taliban would negatively affect not only Afghan women, but also the peace process as a whole.
Despite such evidence, the Taliban’s position on women’s rights has been inconsistent at best. In a recent statement calling for the rewriting of the current Afghan constitution, the Taliban claimed that it has maintained “a very comprehensive and clear approach towards the rights of women from the beginning.” It further stated that the Taliban intends to protect rights of women that are not opposed to Afghan values. However, it also denounced women rights’ advocates, claiming their activities contradict Islamic values.
If that contradictory rhetoric raised questions about the Taliban’s commitment to women’s’ rights, its actions in recent years should leave no room for doubt. During its siege of Kunduz city in 2015, the Taliban harassed women with public profiles and destroyed the offices of organizations that were engaged in the protection of women’s rights. Similar behavior was reported more recently in 2018, during the siege of Ghazni.
In another concerning move, a recent round of intra-Afghan talks was indefinitely postponed due to disagreements over the size and composition of the Afghan government’s delegation. The almost 20 percent representation of women in the Afghan government’s list may not be singularly responsible for the breakdown of the talks, however the starkly reduced numbers in the Qatari list indicate the representation of women was a major point of contention. The Afghan government had proposed a list of 250 participants, including 54 women, while the list put forth by Qatar—reportedly at the behest of the Taliban—included only 10 women. The Taliban has also called for Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution, which provides in-principle guarantees of liberty, equality, and human dignity, to be revised. Article 22 guarantees equal rights and duties to all citizens of Afghanistan while Article 24 protects liberty and human dignity. The Taliban insists that the Constitution is a Western-influenced imposition on Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government’s stance on women’s rights has not been very reassuring. The Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, held in April 2019 to develop an Afghan roadmap for negotiations with the Taliban, saw the participation of approximately 900 women out of a total of 3,000 people. However, reports following the Jirga indicated that the quality of participation among women was low. Their voices were often silenced, they were subjected to stereotypical insults, and meaningful roles on the committees that were formed to make final recommendations mostly went to men. The newly formed 12-member Afghan negotiating team includes 3 women, but questions remain about the quality of their participation.
An apparent lack of commitment in the Trump administration to press the Taliban on the issue of women’s rights further adds to these concerns. The Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017 states that the U.S. must promote meaningful participation of women in the Afghan peace process, there is an evident sense of urgency within the Trump administration to exit Afghanistan. In this context, Afghan women fear that peace will come at the cost of their own rights.
Such an approach to peace is extremely short-sighted. Research by the United Nations indicates that the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and post-conflict societies is associated with more sustainable peace. A recent comparative study of peace processes in Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and Kenya found that in those countries, greater participation by women led to a more comprehensive peace agreement.
As the Afghan women’s rights activist Wazma Frogh notes, women’s participation expands the breadth of issues discussed during peace talks. Women often draw attention to problems that tend to be neglected during political negotiations, including the justice system and public services like education and health. These are all necessary components of a long-lasting peace agreement.
Afghan women have seen progress since 2001 in terms of economic participation, access to social services, and political representation. Those who lived through the years of the Taliban regime, however, remember the control and inhibition of women’s employment, movement, education, and lifestyle. In order to prevent a return to those conditions, it is important that those who intend to make peace in Afghanistan work toward a sustainable peace. The inclusion of women will help ensure this.