In The News

The Missing Piece in Afghanistan’s Peace Talks

January 12, 2011

Afghanistan’s more than three decades of continuous conflict has undermined the basic security and confidence of Afghan women in rural as well as urban environments. Despite high-level talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban that began in October 2010 to speed up reconciliation efforts, many here are skeptical that the building blocks of change that so many brave women have laid since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 could tumble to pieces if they are not included in such a peace process from the outset.

Afghan women in Parliament

Women in Afghanistan report that their voices are often excluded from critical decision-making bodies, such as the High Peace Council, Parliament, and jirgas.

According to The Asia Foundation’s 2010 Survey of the Afghan People, perceptions are becoming more positive for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Eighty seven percent of respondents said that women should have equal opportunities in education. This is consistent with the 81 percent who said they support equal rights under the law, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion. It may also be a factor in the declining number of respondents who identified lack of women’s rights as a major problem for women (from 14 percent in 2006 to 7 percent in 2010). However, while stated support for gender equality remains high, support for women being allowed to work outside the home continued to fall, from 71 percent in 2006 to its lowest level of 64 percent in 2010. Clearly it’s a society in transition, but it remains to be seen what that shift will bring for women in the social order.

The Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) formally began with the Consultative Peace Jirga in June 2010. The APRP is to be led by the High Peace Council, comprised of state and non-state actors and to be implemented by the joint secretariat under the direction of the chief executive officer. In October 2010, President Karzai initiated the High Peace Council, which is headed by former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. According to the Council spokesperson, they have had indirect and secret talks with the Taliban, and he has been quoted as saying, “they want privileges and we will give them privileges. We welcome their honorable return, and we guarantee their return.” The APRP action plan has been developed based on work at the operational level (local processes with foot soldiers, small groups, and local leaders) and at the strategic and political levels (focusing on the leadership of the insurgency). A closer examination reveals that women are largely missing from either level of the peace talks.

One only need look as far as the composition of the Peace Council, which is made up of 70 members, just nine of whom are women, all appointed by President Karzai. Their appointments may limit their independence and ability to speak out. Furthermore, many of these women have been appointed to represent their ethnicity and, in some cases, perhaps in order to placate the opposition, have past ties with the Mujaheedin themselves. In numerous conversations I’ve had with Afghan women, they have told me they believe that they are not being heard, and that they feel they have no chance to influence the peace process in any way. For example, the Afghanistan Women’s Network, a non-governmental organization that seeks to ensure the equal participation of women in Afghan society, is formally represented in the negotiations but has not been involved in any of the talks.

Such a conspicuous lack of female input in peace and conflict discussions around the world inspired the formation of the United Nations Resolution 1325, which states that “civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict.” This document demands that women be given an equal role in conflict resolution in all regional, national, and international institutions. Nowhere is the need for greater gender equality starker than in Afghanistan, yet according to the 1325 checklist developed by the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace & Security, over 40 percent of Afghan-specific resolutions include a mention of the 1325 Resolution, yet the themes most frequently referenced tend to refer to women as victims rather than as active agents in the peacebuilding process. Without reference to an active role, and internationally backed support, the chance for a durable, sustainable peace and reconciliation in this country is weakened.

According to The Asia Foundation’s 2010 survey, three quarters of respondents say they think that the government’s reconciliation efforts and negotiations will help stabilize the country, but men and women have significantly different views. While almost 80 percent of men say that reintegration efforts will help stabilize the country, this is true for only 66 percent of women. Twenty eight percent of women say reintegration will not bring stability. Many agree that this number would be higher if women were in a position to speak more freely. These findings also seem to indicate a level of concern among Afghan women regarding a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, whose regime imposed major restrictions on women’s participation in Afghan society at all levels.

Security obstacles to women’s involvement are also significant. News reports revealed that women candidates running for Parliament in September were at particular risk to intimidation and in some cases violent attacks, including 10 campaign workers for female candidate Fauzia Gailani who were kidnapped; five of them were later found dead. Women report that their voices are often excluded from critical decision-making bodies, such as the High Peace Council, Parliament, and jirgas (traditional councils comprised of elders and influential, elected community leaders). The justification varies for the exclusion. Some say efforts to defend women’s rights can be seen as imposed, foreign, and anti-Islamic. Others say involving women in peace and reconciliation will be counterproductive when attempts are being made to negotiate settlements with hard- line Taliban officials who feel women should not leave the house without a maharam (male escort), let alone be involved in the peace process itself.

Promoting gender-inclusive negotiations in Afghanistan will not come easily, but progress toward peace will depend on initiatives led by local women, with the full support of men. One Afghan man I spoke with recently said, “we must prepare the ground in order to bring women’s participation into the mainstream. Afghanistan is a historically male-dominated society, and as a result, women lack the required skills and capacity to be brought in from the margins for such important and complex processes. This needs to happen gradually and must conform to traditional values and religious beliefs.”

Most agree that Afghanistan’s development is hindered by conflict. But what we all need to agree on is that war affects both men and women, both in its operation and its effects. The challenge of bringing peace to Afghanistan is a challenge to all of us.

Sheilagh Henry is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Afghanistan. She can be reached at shenry@asiafound.org.

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