Despite all the setbacks in the peace process, Afghanistan looks closer than ever to ending, or at least significantly reducing, the decades of violence in the country. The intra-Afghan talks are expected to start this week, and Afghans – especially Afghan women and girls – are right to fear what is at stake for them. Afghan women are afraid their rights could be a bargaining chip – and one easily compromised – in peace negotiations with the Taliban. They are concerned that the peace deal with the Taliban may end the conflict, but cost Afghan women the right to get an education, work and engage in civic, economic and political activities.
Afghanistan has endured war for more than forty years. The conflict has left no Afghan life untouched. Under the Taliban’s rule, Afghan women and girls suffered shocking rights violations, including being denied education and the freedom of movement – something that the new generation in Afghanistan has fought hard to change over the past 19 years. The Taliban’s rule was the most infamous in terms of its cruelty and brutal oppression of women and girls.
Today, while the group and its supporters claim that its position has changed, its actions do not bear this out. The group still remains highly repressive and its position is against the basic rights of women. Ordinary Afghans have pain an enormous price during this devastating war, and now they must answer: What is the price they can afford to pay for peace?
The clock is ticking for the US to broker an agreement that will reduce violence and allow the withdrawal of troops, and leaders Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah are still bickering despite signing a political agreement, all of which means this is no time to leave Afghan women out. Because when women are at negotiating tables, peace agreements are less likely to fail and more likely to last over a long period of time.
The Afghan negotiating team with the Taliban, both men and women, should reach an understanding that whatever they might be prepared to compromise for the end of war– women’s rights can’t be one of them. The value and role of women in Afghan society is undeniable and non-negotiable. Moving forward toward a brighter future – even with a peace deal – will not be possible if the rights of women are excluded.
While Afghan women activists have been advocating for women’s rights for years now, it is also the responsibility of Afghan men to support and advocate for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Surrendering the rights of women will make the prospects for a real, long-lasting and sustainable peace very slim.
Women need to be substantively involved at every level – from pre-negotiation to talks – instead of serving as a symbolic representation for the illusion of inclusion. Research has shown the best predictor of a state’s level of peace is neither its economy nor its type of government or ethnic identity. Rather, it is how well women are treated in society. The peace deal shouldn’t just be an arrangement that will stop the fighting, it should also create a fundamental change and opportunity for Afghans from all walks of life, especially women, to enjoy basic rights and be free to express themselves to the fullest.
Sharif Safi is a civil society leader who works with youth to build a tolerant and open society and was the 2017 N-Peace Award Winner for Afghanistan for his community-based peacebuilding efforts. He’s the Co-founder and Managing Director of Mastooraat Organization in Kabul. www.mastooraat.com
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