Afghan women are essential to any serious efforts at conflict resolution
When Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation in September 2018, an end to America’s longest war seemed finally to be in sight.
Now, following President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement in late December that the US will withdraw 7,000 of its troops from the country, the pressure on Khalilzad to secure a deal with the Taliban by spring has increased dramatically. Many now fear that Trump wants to leave Afghanistan regardless of the consequences, least of all for the country’s women.
Afghan women’s progress is essential to that of Afghanistan as a whole. Yet women are suddenly as invisible in international press coverage as they are in much of Afghan society. Privately, many diplomats concede that women’s rights are simply not a high priority in talks with the Taliban: Nice but not necessary, and given the group’s horrific treatment of women when it ruled the country in the 1990s, probably a nonstarter anyway.
This line of thinking is wrong. The Taliban leadership knows that it has a potentially disastrous image problem. The international community ostracized the Taliban government in the 1990s, owing in part to its treatment of women. To be accepted as a legitimate political movement and a viable partner in any future power-sharing deal, Taliban leaders believe they must demonstrate that they have changed their views.
The best way to ensure that women’s interests are represented in the peace talks is to give them an equal role in the negotiation
Anne-Marie Slaughter & Ashley Jackson
And so they have, if ever so slightly. They now say girls can attend school in the nearly 60 percent of the country under Taliban control, so long as gender segregation is enforced. This is a modest improvement from a generation ago, when the Taliban government prevented nearly all girls from attending school and women from working outside the home.
While Afghan women have made huge strides since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, their gains are at risk, and much more remains to be done. In a recent survey of 15,000 Afghans, women said their biggest problems were lack of education and illiteracy. Investing in education and income-earning opportunities for women is vital. So, too, is redoubling efforts to improve their access to health care.
Afghan women face a one-in-10 chance of dying in childbirth. The situation is so dire that Taliban commanders have been known to ask the government and NGOs to deploy more midwives to areas under their control.
The number of girls in school is falling, legal protection for women is being rolled back, and women in public life are increasingly subject to harassment and violence. Addressing these issues is essential not only for Afghan women, but also for their children, their families and the country.
The best way to ensure that women’s interests are represented in the peace talks is to give them an equal role in the negotiation, design and implementation of any peace process. While most foreign-policy professionals dismiss this suggestion as superfluous or even frivolous, including women is a matter not only of principle, but also of effectiveness. Peace processes in which women participate are on average much less likely to fail, and any agreement reached is more likely to last.
The international community can and must step in. Under the current NATO mission, 39 countries have troops on the ground and many others provide substantial aid to Afghanistan. Their commitment will be required to support any peace deal. They should use this leverage to ensure that women are at the negotiating table, their issues are on the agenda, and their rights are upheld in any deal.
If that proves impossible, these countries could launch and support a parallel Track II dialogue, focused exclusively on women’s rights, that could inform the broader negotiations. They should also increase aid expenditures in critical areas such as women’s health and education.
Any peace deal with the Taliban is likely to include difficult compromises. But an agreement that lacks guarantees regarding the treatment of half the Afghan population is not worth having.
• Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department (2009-2011), is president and CEO of the think tank New America, professor emerita of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, and the author of ‘Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.’
• Ashley Jackson is a research associate with the Overseas Development Institute.
© Project Syndicate