Afghan Women: Essential for Peace
This weekend, the United States signed a fundamentally flawed deal with the Taliban on Afghanistan that foresees full military withdrawal in 14 months. The agreement — negotiated without Afghan government representatives or civil society, including Afghan women — supports the release of Taliban prisoners ahead of intra-Afghan talks and promises to remove sanctions.
The accord makes those assurances without guaranteeing respect for the Afghan constitution or protection for Afghanistan’s citizens, particularly its women. As discussions advance, the U.S. Congress and the international community must ensure women are in future talks because they are critical to advance peace, stability and development.
Fearing a return to the past
Before the Taliban regime was overthrown, women suffered most. Women and girls were deprived of virtually all their rights. They couldn’t attend school, work, or leave home without a male guardian.
Violence and abuse were routinely justified. Today, the reality is profoundly different for many Afghan women and girls. Millions of girls attend school and women contribute to society as members of Parliament, civil servants, business people, and ministers. These leaders advance the development of their country, and they exert a significant influence in support of a modern, moderate Afghanistan.
While women are desperate for an end to 40 years of war, the peace deal has left them fearing for their lives. The agreement does not refer to women or their rights. Women from Herat province to Kabul already held protests expressing concern. These citizens have an enormous amount to lose if the accord ushers in return to the abuses and oppression of the past.
As Zarifa Ghafari, an Afghan mayor who was honored for her courage by the U.S. State Department this week said to First Lady Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “Women of my generation have not forgotten the reign of the Taliban and we are as always worried for the future. Therefore, let me ask for your continued support to ensure that [the] Afghan peace process does not erase the gains that have been made since the dark days of the Taliban regime.”
Why women’s right’s matter
There are myriad reasons why Afghan women’s rights must remain a top priority.
Women are a moderating force in societies around the world. Compelling research shows that women’s participation in ending wars helps ensure durable peace. Women are essential partners in fighting corruption, growing economies, and sustaining stability and prosperity. In Afghanistan, they have helped lead critical efforts to protect minority rights, improve health care, combat gender-based violence, and negotiate a resolution of local conflicts.
Consolidating women’s rights in Afghanistan is also essential to guarantee a return on U.S. investments. Elevating the status of women has been a focus of our efforts. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been deployed to significantly improve women’s and girls’ rights, health and well-being nationwide. Among our most significant accomplishments on the ground have been increases in women’s health and empowerment, as well as girls’ education, all supported by American resources.
What Congress can do
The U.S. Congress must stand in solidarity with Afghan women. There are no prospects for real peace without them. Backsliding on women’s rights would be a visible marker of failure and loss after 20 years’ investment of American energy, lives and money to help create a stable, democratic nation. If women’s rights are undermined and civil strife is exacerbated, terrorists will be more likely, not less, to find a haven in Afghanistan.
Concrete steps would enable the U.S. Government to underline and reinforce its support for women, notwithstanding the flawed agreement.
Most immediately, the U.S. Government must explicitly declare its full support for Afghan women, and the preservation of rights enshrined in the Afghan constitution, including women’s rights to citizenship, education, healthcare, and justice. Such a declaration would be wholly consistent with the bipartisan Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017.
In signing the Act into law, President Trump recognized that women’s participation must be recognized as necessary for operational effectiveness and peace and stability.
More specifically, the United States, the international community and the Afghan Government must demand women’s participation in intra-Afghan peace talks. We must urge our Afghan allies to have a negotiating team that includes women representatives.
The Taliban must also include women on their side of the table. Representatives of civil society must include women leaders, as should all observer delegations from foreign countries.
Additionally, the U.S. must predicate future aid on the maintenance of women’s rights. The Deputy leader of the Taliban, Haqqani, already recognized that Afghanistan will need continued international development.
While we will lose military leverage after withdrawal, our post-conflict aid packages can hold the Taliban accountable. The U.S. must condition assistance on the protection of women’s rights and support for women’s advancement.
Members of Congress have shown important leadership and commitment to Afghan women’s rights for decades. The Congressional Caucus for Women has held myriad briefings on the status of Afghan women and has elevated the voices of Afghan women leaders in Washington D.C. Members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary Pompeo in June 2019, calling for women’s participation in peace talks and protection of their rights. The House has introduced H.R. 4097, the Afghan Women’s Inclusion in Negotiations Act, which, if passed, would require the submission of regular reports on an executive branch strategy to protect women’s rights following the peace deal.
A newly-formed bipartisan Women, Peace and Security Caucus, led by Representatives Lois Frankel and Michael Waltz, further underlines Congressional commitment to advancing women’s role in peacebuilding. This is a moment for outspoken leadership by all those in Congress who care about peace in Afghanistan.
The United States must explicitly and decisively stand with Afghan women. It is the right thing to do, and it is in our strategic interest.
Amb. Melanne Verveer is the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Carla Koppell is an adjunct assistant professor and distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Koppell recently served as a vice president with the United States Institute for Peace. Prior to that she served as chief strategy officer in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and was appointed USAID’s inaugural senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
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