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Will women’s gains be sold out in Taliban peace deal?

“It is necessary that we strengthen women’s role from within our civilisation and culture,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in his address to women in a gathering ahead of International Women’s Day last Thursday in Kabul. “Our Constitution is clear, specific and, thank God, completely Islamic. Our commitment is to implement the Constitution.”

As March 8 falls on what is rumoured to be the eve of the first round of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Afghan women’s rights activists were anxiously anticipating unadulterated assurances from Ghani to the effect that women’s achievements will not be compromised in an eventual peace deal. Though Ghani never directly mentioned the talks, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah’s message read in his absence clearly stated that the government will present a red line on women’s rights and will not compromise Afghan women’s achievements in exchange for a peace deal.

Quivering political will

Some women’s rights groups, including the Afghan Women’s Charter, have requested that at least one woman be included in the government’s team of negotiators. They have further demanded that belief in women’s rights be part of the criteria for selecting male negotiators.

Women’s angst stems from a quivering political will that the Afghan political leadership has demonstrated in the past decade on the issue of women’s rights and status in this male-dominated society. Afghan women, as determined and talented as they are, could not have achieved their gains of the last decade had it not been for the international community’s presence and pressure on Afghan political leaders.

It was, in fact, the outrage of powerful western feminist groups towards the Taliban regime’s draconian laws against Afghan women in the late civilisation, that brought the world’s focus back to Afghanistan. It was in part their strong lobby in western capitals that prompted global attention to, and the allocation of funds for, promoting Afghan women’s political, economic and social position since the fall of the Taliban.

Those efforts resulted in many achievements, the biggest of which is the equal status of women in the Afghan Constitution and institution of positive discrimination in some areas such as obligatory allocation of a minimum of 30 percent parliamentary seats to female representative.

There are many other accomplishments. While 15 years ago the Taliban had banned girls’ education altogether, today, nearly 40 percent of the 8 million children in school are girls and young women comprise about 30 percent of university students. Many training programmes were implemented to raise women’s employment capacity and economic empowerment.       

Maternal mortality rate has dropped from 1,600 per 100,000 in 2002, to 400 per 100,000, and the average life expectancy of Afghan women has come up to 62 from 51 in a decade, all due to donors’ funds and implementation of programmes aimed at women’s health.

Fading commitment

However, as the global interest in Afghanistan began to dwindle, the Afghan government’s commitment to women’s rights also began to fade. Since 2013, especially, the US and NATO military drawdown has been accompanied with a policy of pushing reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The group that was the number 2 enemy of the US and a menace to global security since the tragic 9/11 incident suddenly was taken off Washington’s list of terrorist organisations. The West decided that peace and stability can be achieved simultaneous to their troop withdrawal schedule.

The Afghan women’s fear of becoming the sacrificial lamb in the peace deal has reached new heights since the publication of a statement purported to be issued by Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, that was published last week. The statement calls for dramatic amendments to the constitution, emphasising articles pertaining to women, as preconditions to peace negotiations.

The apprehension would not have been as intense had there not existed prevalent anti-women sentiments among a number of powerful political leaders within the system. A number of the former mujahideen leaders and some of the MPs who have become powerful thanks to the democratic system, initially paid lip service to the international community’s support of women’s rights, but slowly began to show their true colours through their posturing against pro-women legislations, disregarding affirmative action and generally presenting obstacles in implementation of measures for the betterment of women’s status.

During the presidential election campaign of last year, both Ghani and CEO Abdullah said that they believe in women’s rights and would adopt policies that would ensure women’s advancement. It worked. In a traditional society still marred with security threats, 38 percent of voters were women.

Equal share

When a group of women activists asked Ghani for at least 38 percent female participation in the government, they were encouraged by the new president’s response: “Why limit yourselves to only 38 percent? You should expect equal share as you comprise half of the population.”

Women’s political participation, especially in decision-making positions, is vital to their future predicament. However, when the first group of cabinet ministers was presented to the parliament for vote of confidence, only three out of 18 (16 percent) were women. All three were rejected – along with seven male nominees – for various reasons.

Afghan women’s groups have recently presented lists of capable women for a variety of posts to the president and the CEO. Appointment of strong and capable women inkey positions will, no doubt, ensure protection of hitherto achievements and will raise hope for further advancement of Afghan women.

Similarly, a genuine – and not symbolic – inclusion of prominent and outspoken women in every step of the peace process will illustrate the Afghan president’s commitment to women’s equality as citizens of this country and will guarantee that their rights will not be compromised.

The adverse effects of the exclusion of women from peace processes in the past were devastating for the female segment of society and never brought sustainability for the nation. According to an Amnesty International report, only 16 percent of Afghan peace agreements in the last two decades have contained a reference to women and gender.  

While it is true that Afghan women must continue strengthening their role indigenously and within their own civilization’s values, the continued male-dominated political environment in the country requires that at this crucial juncture, the international community re-engage and make their support of Afghan women’s gains clear. Peace and stability at the cost of half of the country’s population will not be honest, or sustainable.

Helena Malikyar

Source: Al Jazeera

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