Afghanistan-Taliban peace talks must include women negotiators defending their rights
March 21, 2018
In 23 rounds of Afghanistan-Taliban peace talks, women were at the table just twice. They need formal roles in any new talks to protect their own progress.
Afghan women have long feared that negotiators for a peace agreement with the Taliban would trade away women’s rights for the chance to end more than 16 years of war. This apprehension may soon be tested.
In the wake of Kabul’s recent overture to the Taliban, proposing negotiations without preconditions and offering to recognize the insurgent group as a legitimate political party, many have renewed hope for peace talks. But if talks do begin in earnest, will women be at the table? They should — not simply as a matter of fairness, but as a strategic imperative. As women have demonstrated, from Colombia to the Philippines to Liberia, their involvement makes it more likely both that a peace agreement will be reached, and that it will endure.
Women and girls have made notable progress since the fall of the Taliban, which adheres to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in which women are considered second-class citizens. Under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women were banned from schools and work, faced public beatings and executions, and endured severe restrictions on their movement. Today, women and girls enjoy more opportunity to attend school and participate in political and economic life.
However, these gains have not translated into opportunities for women to participate in the peace process. In 23 rounds of peace talks between 2005 and 2014, women were at the table on only two occasions. When officials from over 25 countries recently gathered for the Kabul Process, an Afghan-led peace conference, the room was overwhelmingly filled with men. If the conference is at all indicative of what future negotiations will look like, Afghan leaders should rethink their approach and pursue instead a proven strategy to improve the chances for peace: the participation of women.
In a new interactive report, we present in-depth case studies and an index tracking women in formal roles in peace processes from 1990 to the present. This and other research suggests that including women in peace processes advances security, and that their participation in negotiations makes the resulting agreement 64% less likely to fail and 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.
Despite the marginalization of women from Afghanistan’s formal peace negotiations, Afghan women have made valuable contributions to addressing violence and securing peace at the grassroots level throughout the country. Here are four ways they have made a difference:
► They have brokered local deals. Female members of provincial peace councils have negotiated directly with insurgent leaders to support the reintegration of demobilized Taliban fighters into local communities, facilitate the release of hostages (which they succeeded in doing by first reaching out to the wives of Talibs), and mobilize local support for the peace process, including by encouraging local insurgents to participate in talks. They also are working in schools and community organizations to counter extremist narratives.
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► They have gained access to critical information. Because Afghan women can access spaces in society that men cannot, they can offer unique contributions to security operations and inform negotiating positions. Recognizing this, the United States and coalition partners formed teams to increase their outreach to Afghan women and gather intelligence about potential security risks. However, insights are not always heeded: A network of women activists in Kabul and Ghazni reported to local security personnel their suspicion that the Taliban wassmuggling weapons into the province, based on an increase in trucks passing through their areas. Security officials did not respond, and a few months later, the Taliban freed fighters from a Ghazni jail in the largest prison break in years, dealing a significant setback to security efforts.
► They built public support. Women’s groups reach out to rural areas that are typically cut off from information about the peace process, sharing updates and soliciting input. For example, female members of the High Peace Council led a nationwide campaign in 2014 across most of the country’s 34 provinces, despite the dangerous conditions, to increase public awareness of the process. Female organizers collected 250,000 signatures of women and girls in support of the peace process, which they delivered to then-President Hamid Karzai, Taliban leaders and the United Nations.
► They have worked across lines. Afghan women frequently organize across cultural and sectarian divides in pursuit of shared priorities, and bring attention to social and humanitarian concerns and the right of marginalized groups to participate in the peace process. For example, at the 2004 constitutional convention, women successfully reached across ethnic lines to push for a written commitment to equal rights for all Afghan citizens.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently affirmed that women must be part of any peace process with the Taliban. Now it’s up to Afghan leaders, the United States and other stakeholders to ensure that Afghan women have a seat at the table and an opportunity to help bring peace and security to Afghanistan.
Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow at the council and director of its Women and Foreign Policy program. On Twitter: @jamillebigio