Can new US Strategy on Women, Peace & Security give women a real seat at the table? Ask Afghan women
The White House recently unveiled a long-anticipated U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace and Security. Mandated by the bipartisan Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, it builds upon a body of work begun with the 2011 U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. The Strategy provides a policy framework that requires the United States to prioritize the needs and perspectives of women in conflict prevention, resolution and reconstruction, to protect them during conflict itself and to support them as decision-makers and agents of change throughout.
But what does it all mean in practice? Current events in Afghanistan provide a timely example of what the application of these important policies could look like in practice.
The United States is about to enter its eighth round of bilateral negotiations with the Taliban to come to terms that would facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Ending America’s longest war will be no easy task, and many are worried a rushed withdrawal would result in regional instability and increased violence. And given the Taliban’s track record, there is one constituency with the most to lose who are not at the table: Afghan women and girls.
The horrific treatment they endured under the Taliban remains fresh in their minds. “Our collective experiences as women under the Taliban rule, whether in urban centers or rural villages, left us with bitter memories of oppressive measures towards women in health, education and employment making it impossible for women to flourish and reach their full potential,” said a statement released by the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) earlier this year. An umbrella organization uniting numerous representatives from across women’s civil society in Afghanistan, AWN is working night and day to ensure women, youth and other marginalized populations are meaningfully included in these negotiations and that their rights are protected. They are also mobilizing women and training them to participate in peace negotiations under the #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack campaign that has reached over 2 million people.
And that is what is at the heart of all these lofty policies on women, peace and security: ensuring that the prevention, resolution and recovery from war reflect and represent those most disproportionately affected by it.
Research tells us that women are uniquely positioned within communities to understand what is needed to create lasting peace. And when it comes to peace processes specifically, the research is even more clear: Peace agreements are more effective and long-lasting when women and other marginalized groups are meaningfully included.
This is the philosophy that is now enshrined in U.S. law thanks to a growing series of legislative and executive actions. The new Strategy, as well as the Women, Peace and Security Act and National Action Plan before it, emphasize that women’s rights are not simply a moral imperative, but are central to United States’ national security and defense policy. Together with the law, these strategies make inclusive, sustainable security a “new normal” for U.S. doctrine, regardless of which party sits in the White House. This is cause for celebration for the women’s rights and peace advocates who have campaigned for this agenda over decades.
This is not to say that there isn’t room for critique and improvement. The document fails entirely to mention LGBTQ populations and lacks protections for girls and youth. Critically, and in light of recent U.S. behavior at the Security Council, the Strategy does not acknowledge the need for sexual and reproductive health care for women in conflict areas — even, most egregiously, those who have experienced rape as a weapon of war.
However, the Strategy is strong in that it calls for the application and even expansion of gender analysis in programming, which means agencies must analyze, collect data and learn from how their programs impact people differently based on their gender.
But the real test for the Strategy will be how this plays out on the ground, not on paper. And this is the disconnect with the Administration’s approach to Afghanistan — so far, in talks with the Taliban, women have yet to be included.
This omission has caught the attention of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress. In March, a delegation of women from AWN, including prominent Afghan civil society leaders Mary Akrami, Mahbouba Seraj and Nasima Omari, along with advocates from the International Center for Research on Women, conducted a series of meetings in Congress to convey the urgency of the situation, the fear on the ground and Afghan women’s demands for peace. Since then some 77 Members of the House — led by Representatives Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) and Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) — sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to give women a seat at the table in the negotiations with the Taliban.
The Senate, led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), has also made its concerns known, including through another letter to Secretary Pompeo and in a recent Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) subcommittee hearing on women and conflict, presided over by Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ben Cardin, (D-Md.). During the hearing, in an exchange with expert witness Palwasha Kakar, Sen. Rubio referred to Afghanistan as the first real “test” for the Women, Peace and Security Strategy and stated that unless we apply it to our efforts there, it won’t be the “real deal.”
In a separate SFRC hearing earlier in the year, Senator Shaheen pushed Secretary Pompeo on U.S. commitments to women’s inclusion in the Afghan peace process. He was non-committal, answering with “I hope they will make their voices heard.” But for voices to be heard, someone has to listen.
It is time for the United States to practice what we preach: Women must be included in negotiations with the Taliban immediately, or history risks repeating itself. At stake are not only women’s lives and rights, but peace itself.
It would be a shame to show the world that ultimately, our young tradition of honoring women’s rights in our security and defense policy is the stuff of empty promises, too thin to hold the weight of democracy, justice and equality when held up to the test of our complicated geopolitical reality.
Teresa Casale is Global Policy Advocate at the International Center for Research on Women, leading the organization’s advocacy on issues related to women, peace and security and women’s economic empowerment. She manages the Feminist UN Campaign and formerly served as Vice Chair of the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.
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