Heather Barr is senior researcher on women’s rights with Human Rights Watch.
As rumors swirl about a new round of peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, the first under Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, women are fighting for a place at the table. The view from the front lines of that fight is maddening.
Ghani has made negotiating peace with the Taliban a top priority — understandably, given that Afghan security forces, already stretched, depend on foreign donors heading for the exits. Less understandable is that Ghani has offered no indication that there will be a role for women in the talks.
For years, Afghan women have advocated for their rightful place in talks about the future of Afghanistan. They’ve been shut out, put off, ignored, given token roles and patronized with promises that they don’t need to be there themselves — the men in the room will look after them.
These dismissive, destructive and — yes — sexist attitudes come not just from old-school misogynists in the Afghan government. Donor governments have for 14 years touted their support for Afghan women while excluding them from peace talks. A 2014 study by Oxfam found that, in 23 known rounds of talks between international negotiators and the Taliban since 2005, not one woman was included. In discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban, women have been present during two rounds of talks. The offenders include the United States, which has played a major role in engaging the Taliban but failed to insist on the inclusion of women.
The Taliban government toppled in 2001 was notorious for harsh restrictions on women; the United States and other countries rallied popular support for sending troops by highlighting the suffering of Afghan women.
Women are half the population of Afghanistan. Some fight as soldiers and police, and all have suffered from years of war. It should be obvious that any peace deal will have an enormous effect on women’s lives.
Afghanistan is a crucial test of the world’s commitment to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, which requires all countries to “ensure increased representation of women” in all decision-making regarding conflict resolution and insists on women’s “equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” Afghanistan’s government remains overwhelmingly dependent on foreign aid, so there is no argument that donors lack influence. In few, if any, recent conflicts has the issue of women’s rights been more vital.
Afghan women have warned for years that their rights may be the first thing bargained away in Taliban-government talks. They have reason to be fearful. The Taliban is well known for its abhorrence of women’s rights, and the post-Taliban government has undermined many of the gains women achieved after the fall of the Taliban. Will a men-only discussion of women’s rights between the two be a discussion between a party that loathes women’s rights and one that demonstrates little enthusiasm for protecting them?
That’s why Afghan women need to be in the room to negotiate for themselves. That’s where Resolution 1325 says they should be. Ghani should provide them with genuine seats at that table, and Afghanistan’s donors should stop substituting photo ops and funding of projects for support for Afghan women when it counts most.