Heart (Afghanistan), April 28: Afghanistan’s women are demanding a seat at the table in negotiations over the country’s future, determined to prevent the gains they have made since the 2001 fall of the Taliban from being bargained away.
But already, they are meeting resistance to having a strong voice in the talks. Women’s rights activists are not just concerned about the Taliban, who were notorious for their repression of women during their rule.
They are just as worried that religious conservatives, warlords and strongmen who dominate Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed leadership — and whose attitudes toward women often differ little from the Taliban — will trade away their rights to reach a deal.
Pressure is on for a peace accord as the United States seeks to end its long military presence in Afghanistan. For women, the stakes are high. The advances they have made are important — for example, women are now members of parliament, and their rights are enshrined in the constitution, including the right to education.
But the gains are fragile and limited, and nearly 18 years after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban, Afghan women still live under a crushing weight of discrimination. What laws that do exist are little enforced, activists say, giving male relatives and tribal councils almost complete say over women’s and girls’ lives.
That leaves them vulnerable to violence, early marriage and exclusion from work and education. The 2018 Women, Peace and Security Index rated Afghanistan as the second worst place in the world to be a woman, after Syria.
Strong participation in talks is “not a gift, it is our right,” said Suraya Pakzad, an activist. “We, the women of Afghanistan, are suffering, fighting to bring peace in Afghanistan, to change Afghanistan.” “We will not allow anyone to push us, to force us to go back,” she said. “We know how to raise our voices.”
Activists are pressing for at least a third of participants in any negotiations to be women. But so far, the door has been largely closed to them. President Ashraf Ghani appointed only five women to a 37-member council created to shepherd negotiations.
Dozens of women were also taken off the list of planned participants at the first round of all-Afghan talks between the government and Taliban, meant to have been held last week in Qatar. The gathering was cancelled at the last minute because of a separate dispute.
Pakzad was part of a team of women delegates who were told even before the cancellation that they would not be let into the talks. “Women had travelled from far away rural areas, through many Taliban checkpoints in their burqas and passed very dangerous areas to attend,” she said.
Activists say the advances for women are erratically enforced and hardly felt in rural areas where most Afghans live. Only 16 per cent of the workforce is women, one of the lowest rates in the world, and half of Afghanistan’s women have had four years or less of education, according to data compiled by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo. Only around half of school-aged girls go to school, and only 19 percent of girls under 15 are literate, according to the U.N. children’s agency.