Women must not be forgotten in Afghanistan peace talks

Women must not be forgotten in Afghanistan peace talks

Women chant slogans during a protest in Kabul. (Reuters)

After decades of war, US envoys are finally meeting with top Taliban figures to negotiate a peace deal, based on commitments by the US to withdraw international forces from Afghanistan and from the Taliban not to allow extremist groups to operate in the country. However, a question on the minds of the international community is what will this settlement mean for Afghanistan’s women? Although the Taliban have stated they are open to recognizing the rights of women, it remains to be seen just how far they will go.
I feel uneasy about the future of women in Afghanistan. If we allow women to be left out of any future settlement and we disregard the hard-won rights now enshrined in Afghanistan’s constitution, we will rob the country of a vibrant future. The plight of women under the Taliban lives on in our collective memory — women banned from jobs, from education and from society. We can recall the iconic images of a sea of anonymous women, stripped of their individual identities and forced into a uniform of matching blue burkas. Women across the country now play an active role in Afghanistan’s quest for peace, but a return to the Taliban’s misogynistic rule of old would not only impact women — everyone in the country would suffer. 
My family was forced to flee Afghanistan when I was a little girl, arriving in the UK in the back of a refrigerated lorry — cold, tired and scared. Growing up in the UK has afforded me and my family opportunities that would have been and were denied to those who grew up under the Taliban. Eighteen years on, as Afghanistan faces the real possibility that the Taliban returns to power in certain areas, women face the depressing reality that the rights they have won could soon be overturned.

If we allow women to be left out of any future settlement and we disregard the hard-won rights now enshrined in Afghanistan’s constitution, we will rob the country of a vibrant future.

Rabia Nasimi

Although I have lived most of my life in the UK, I find this prospect particularly worrying. Afghanistan remains a key part of my identity and I regularly return to my home country. Despite all the challenges that remain in Afghanistan, significant progress has been made since the fall of the Taliban. The Afghanistan of today is different from the Afghanistan my family fled. Women are increasingly playing prominent roles in the government, media, and art and culture.
Regrettably, this is not the case in many areas, particularly those under the control of the Taliban’s shadow administration. Worse still, despite many advancements, throughout Afghanistan women continue to live in poverty, are the victims of violence, and too many girls do not receive a proper education. According to even the most optimistic statistics, the proportion of Afghan girls who are in school has never gone much above 50 percent and can be as low as 15 percent in some provinces. These numbers are significant as they demonstrate just how much work needs to be done to address the very important concerns and barriers affecting Afghan women.
An increase in the Taliban’s influence could slow or even reverse Afghanistan’s progress on women’s rights in some areas, notably education and career opportunities. After having fled the Taliban aged five, I have thrived academically in the UK and am the Strategic Development Manager at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association — this would not be possible in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. An entire generation has been robbed of reaching their full potential under the Taliban and there’s a palpable risk that more women’s potential will go to waste if their influence grows.
There are some incredible women contributing to Afghanistan, such as Fawzia Koofi, a prominent female politician who is currently the vice president of the National Assembly — one of the top jobs in the Afghan legislature. However, we should not forget the likes of Farkhunda Malikzada, a young woman beaten to death by a mob in 2015 for a crime she was falsely accused of committing. There is still much more work that Afghanistan needs to do to truly emancipate women.
Whilst it is positive to see the green shoots of peace in these talks, the Afghan diaspora across the world has expressed concerns about how they are progressing. Against a backdrop of ongoing abhorrent Taliban attacks and wider insecurity in the region, it is essential that women’s rights are put at the forefront of negotiations. We must not lose sight of this so we can ensure the next generation of Afghan women will prosper and thrive in the peacebuilding process. 
Although I’ve focused heavily on women, that is not to say that life under the Taliban as a boy or man is easy — there are significant challenges facing both genders. However, we should remember that women are the cornerstone of almost every family. The reality is that, in Afghanistan, they will play a key role in raising the next generation of both boys and girls — the peacebuilders of tomorrow. If we allow women to be silenced, we will silence the future.

  • Rabia Nasimi is Strategic Development Manager at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), a London-based charity that helps refugees integrate in the UK. Twitter: @RabiaNasimi 
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