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In early February 2019, landmark peace talks took place in Moscow between the US government and the Taliban that have advanced the possibility of a negotiated peace further than any previous attempt in the 17-year-long conflict. However, women and an agenda on women’s rights were largely absent from the peace talks (see the striking picture of the negotiating table here). The near total absence of women in the talks provides a reminder of the harsh treatment of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March, this blog examines the significance of the absence of women in peace processes, looks into how Afghan women have participated in the peace process in the post-Taliban period, and investigates how a more inclusive process can be introduced into the Afghan context to promote durable peace.
In Afghanistan, women have been greatly affected by conflict. Under Taliban rule prior to 2001, even basic freedoms were denied to women such as going to school, speaking publicly, leaving the house without a male chaperone, among others. Despite gradual improvements, women’s rights in Afghanistan remain a serious concern. Women’s participation in politics is low at both local and national levels. Illiteracy and a general sense of insecurity felt by women are still common. According to the WPS index which provides measures of various indicators on women’s rights, wellbeing and empowerment, Afghanistan ranks at the bottom, in 152nd place out of 153 countries.
With this background in mind, the absence of Afghan women in the talks means more than a failure of political correctness. It means that women in the country do not know what is going to happen in their lives in the future; the days of Taliban oppression of women could return if they do not guarantee that women’s rights, enshrined in the constitution, will be upheld in any future power-sharing arrangement. This reaffirms the notion that the aim of a peace process should not only be to end violent conflict but also to build a lasting peace. The absence of women and their voices in the process casts doubt on the type of peace that these talks would bring to the country.
A growing body of evidence shows the positive correlation between women’s broader participation in peace negotiations and durable peace. Many cases of exclusive peace processes also provide examples of fragile peace at the expense of women. For example, the Sudan-South Sudan peace process shows how exclusion and marginalisation of women has led to gender-blind institutions in the post-war period—women in South Sudan remain largely absent from decision-making and political power. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) provides another example: low levels of women's participation in the peace process and gender inequality, among other factors, partly contribute to legal discrimination and violence against women.
Exclusion of women is also a good indication of a broader lack of inclusivity in peace processes. It comes as no surprise then that, along with the exclusion of women, a broader cross-section of Afghan people including youth who represent the post-Taliban generation were mostly missing from the Moscow talks.
As explored in a recent study by SIPRI, the inclusion of women and their meaningful participation in peace processes is central to having a gender perspective in peace processes. Indicators of the inclusion of women in a peace process (see figure 1) do not focus solely on direct representation at the negotiating table. Drawing on previous research, the study suggests different modes of participation in peace processes that can increase women’s inclusion. These range from direct representation, consultative mechanisms, commissions and high-level problem-solving workshops, to public decision-making and mass action. Furthermore, a peace process is more likely to be successful and lasting when a combination of modes of inclusion are introduced throughout the process.
This is in line with another research study demonstrating that collaboration between female delegates and women civil society groups contributes to higher implementation rates of agreement provisions. Those linkages are seen in many examples like Papua New Guinea, UK/Northern Ireland, El Salvador and Guatemala. This result has special implications for Afghanistan given that Afghan women in the post-Taliban period have created active collaboration among women civil society groups.
Prior to the international talks currently taking place, women in Afghanistan had been represented in peace talks between the government and various armed groups in different ways. For example, in 2010, an inclusive commission known as the High Peace Council, which consisted of nine women (out of 70 members) including two on the Executive Board, created broader communication networks with women groups, civil society, gender focal points and girl’s schools around the country. Provincial peace councils and the Afghan Women’s Network, a network of over 125 organizations, have also served as consultation mechanisms to lead local peacebuilding efforts, raise public support for the process, and to broker deals for the reintegration of former combatants. A more recent example was in early 2019 for the Moscow talks, where the Afghan Women’s Network gathered opinions from a broader constituency in a document, titled ‘Afghan Women Six Point Agenda for Moscow Peace Talks’, that brought together women from urban and rural areas of Afghanistan as well as the diaspora.
However, such active participation of civil society is overshadowed by a lack of direct involvement of women in formal peace processes, as seen in the current negotiations. Prior to this, in 23 rounds of talks between 2005 and 2014, there were two occasions where Afghan women were directly represented at the negotiation table: the 2010 talks in the Maldives and the 2011–12 talks in France. Given that a combination of different modes of participation is a positive factor for the quality of peace, the lack of women in the formal peace process could undermine the attainment of a sustainable peace in the Afghan context.
As discussions in the Afghan peace process move away from issues of hard security and the use of violence, it is now more crucial than ever to think about the quality of peace and strategies to sustain the peace. This is where a more inclusive process and effective implementations of the gender-related provisions of any future peace agreements gain more importance in the Afghan context. For a way forward, however, different actors’ support and commitment would be essential.
At the Moscow talks, the Taliban’s chief negotiator has stated the group’s commitment to all rights given to women by Islam, saying that ‘Islam has given women all fundamental rights — such as trade, ownership, inheritance, education, work and the choice of partner, security and education, and a good life.’ Considering the Taliban’s oppression in the past, some women questioned this statement’s sincerity. In this context, pushing for the inclusion of women and gender issues in the formal peace process, which is lagging and has been criticized, would be a strategy to harness not only the Taliban’s acceptance of women’s legitimate concerns but also its willingness to sustain the momentum of current negotiations.
Harnessing the current momentum of a greater role of women in government than ever before, the Afghan government could also push for more involvement of women in politics and security governance. This echoes comments made by Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, who has shown support for increased women’s participation in the past.
By passing the Women, Peace, and Security Act in 2017, the US is currently the only country that has passed legislation in response to UNSCR 1325. As supporting the inclusion of female negotiators, meditators, and peacebuilders around the world is one of their mandates, the US government as a party to the conflict should push for more inclusivity in the peace process.
The exclusion of women in peace processes has serious repercussions for women’s rights post-conflict. But particularly in Afghanistan, where women’s rights remain precarious, this failure to consistently address women’s opportunities and rights will reinforce gender injustice. Including women at the negotiating table and in consultations beyond the formal talks is a necessary step towards a lasting and legitimate peace in Afghanistan.