Afghanistan: Women Face Rising Danger If Excluded From Peace Talks

Publication Date: 
October 3, 2011
Women's News Network
Four graduates from Kabul University's intensive five-month engineering training program for women (Photo: USAID).

(WNN) KABUL: On the tenth anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a new October 3, 2011 Oxfam report on progress for Afghan women shows steady advances for Afghan women since October 2001. But recent data shows women’s personal safety, opportunity and human rights inside the nation are beginning to erode back to conditions that existed previously. 

With May 2011 being the deadliest month for Afghan civilian casualties since 2007, opinions inside and outside the country on the war in Afghanistan have been mixed. Many women in the region worry they will be left behind as international peace talks accelerate toward the proposed U.S. military campaign ‘end’ date in 2014.

Oxfam warns that women’s “hard-won gains remain fragile.” Numerous gains have begun to see reversals says Oxfam’s recent October report, “.”

“Women want peace but not at the cost of losing our freedom again,” says Noorjahan Akbar, co-founder of Young Women for Change.

The changes for women in the past decade are evident but still show disparity between those women who have more opportunity and those who have little to no ability to jump through the wall of poverty. Those who may be granted a chance to speak at the table with peace talks are the same ones who have gained more education that enables them to push forward with gains for women.

In rural regions though, many women and girls continue to fall through the cracks without a voice. Numerous girls in rural regions marry too early to gain access to any secondary educational opportunities as they suffer under discrimination and exclusion.

Current data still shows that “Over 80% of Afghan women are illiterate and only 6% aged older than 25 have had an education,” outlines Oxfam although there is a high percentage of 92 women out of 351 members in the parliament. The picture for many women, those in rural areas or those in urban areas who have been unable to receive educational opportunities, are still bleak regardless of gains.

Before 1996, when Taliban officials officially took over many of Afghanistan’s local government and policy decisions, women made up 70 percent of all teachers, 50 percent of all civil servants and 40 percent of all medical doctors in the country. But conditions for women began to deteriorate following 1994 as Taliban policy became more pervasive and insistent that women follow Taliban doctrines that limit women to live surrounding home and family only.

“In most places, particularly in the villages, the condition of women is still like a hell,” says world-renown Kandahar based activist Malalai Joya, named one of TIME magazine’s 100 “most influential people  in the world” in 2010. In spite of gains, Joya who is a former member of the Afghanistan parliament kicked out of the Assembly because of her outspoken views, sees the problem in what she calls a “military occupation” that comes with a hefty price. “…even with the presence of tens of thousands of troops, not only women—also Afghan men—suffer from war, terrorism, injustice, the rule of drug mafia and warlordism, insecurity, joblessness, poverty, unprecedented corruption, and many other problems,” said Joya in an April 2011 interview by Harvard International Review.

Today crime and violence in Afghanistan is at an all time high. “2010 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2001,” says Oxfam in a May 2011 briefing paper put together with CIVIC – Campaign for Innocent Victims in Combat and the HRRAC – Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium. In a growing atmosphere of increased violence, women are particularly vulnerable to instability in the Afghan government where “harm is caused in violation of human rights,” states the report. “And despite billions of dollars poured into security sector reform over the past decade, accountability for violations is seriously lacking, as are mechanisms for appropriately responding to harm caused during lawful operations.”

But conditions of war have not slowed the desire for women in the country to achieve. It may just be the opposite. “Even with conditions that seem to be deteriorating women and girls are trying to take their place in a larger Afghan society,” says co-author of the recent Oxfam report on Afghan women’s rights Orzala Ashraf Nemat.

Girl in Kabul selling candy and scarves in market

Young girl in Kabul sells candy and scarves in a 2010 marketplace.
Image: Mark Reidy

Following the events in the United States on September 9, 2001, the sponsored in part by the United Nations in Bonn, Germany, outlined women’s participation as parliamentary representatives in an ‘emergency Loya Jirga’ (Afghanistan’s National Assembly) that was intended to be part of an interim government in Afghanistan. Many Afghan women’s advocates now fear that the 2011 Bonn Conference may not include a strong enough push to bring Afghan women to the table for ‘solution-based’ meetings on peace for the country.

“Women organizations and activists have better access to local communities and are aware about the challenges and causes of insecurity in their communities, therefore they should be consulted, included to ensure that security and transition plans are implemented successfully,” says The Afghan Women’s Network in a October 6, 2011 report that addresses the dangers for women if exclusion continues to be the norm at local and international peace meetings.

“As the international community talks about the future of its relationship with Afghanistan, I worry that protecting women’s rights as stated in the Afghan constitution may be compromised as the Afghan government and members of the international community negotiate with the Taliban,” said war trauma expert and founder of Zainab Salbi in a with Women News Network – WNN.

“Much has been promised to Afghan women some delivered and some not,” continued Salbi.

“Afghan women tell me that they do not feel that they can count on any of the main players in peace efforts to safeguard their rights,” says Louise Hancock, Oxfam policy advisor in Afghanistan and co-author of the recent October Oxfam report. “They want a place at the table so that they can protect their hard-won gains,” she continues. “The greater stake women have in a peace process the more likely they are to support and promote reconciliation within their families and communities, which is essential for lasting peace,” she continued.

An important bridge to empowerment and equality for women in Afghanistan has been the focus on education for girls. Since 2001 the number of girls who have received some education has risen remarkably. Unpublished data from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ministry of Education (2009-2010) spreadsheets on student enrollment and attendance shows a ‘seven-fold’ expansion since October 2001 stating that 2.4 million girls are enrolled in school compared to only 5,000 girls before 2001. Progress for women in medical, law and professional careers has also seen a marked upward swing since 2001.

“We have made incredible gains in the last 10 years.  Women are working as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen; and girls are at school,” says Nemat. But conditions for Afghan women are showing recent tough losses as they are beginning to lose ground. In June 2011 a global poll of experts placed Afghanistan as the number one country where women currently live under some of the most dangerous conditions worldwide, and conditions are not improving.

“But what is life going to be like for us in the next 10 years? Already life is getting tougher for Afghan women. Afghan women want peace – not a stitch up deal that will confine us to our homes again,” Nemat continues.

“Historically speaking, religious and conservative groups always wanted the control over the private sphere that impacts women most, as reflected by family law and women’s access to resources and mobility.  And often secular groups traded this for economic incentives and trade,” said Salbi.  “We risk witnessing this happening in today’s Afghanistan as many talk about reconciliation with the Taliban and the possibilities of women restricting their movement and access,” continued Salbi.

With a diversity in approaches to future solutions women such a Salbi – an Iraqi American; Joya – who lives in the Kandahar region; and Nemat- one of the as well as an Afghan scholar and civil society activist agree that women should be allowed to work together side-by-side with men at the negotiating table. “We are a voice that must be heard,” says Nemat.

“Afghan women want peace – not a political bargain that only serves the interests of a few,” outlines Oxfam.

Afghan parliamentarian Ms. Fawzia Koofi & U.S. Senators, U.S. Embassy August 28, 2011

Afghan Parliamentarian Ms. Fawzia Koofi meets with U.S. Senators at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, August 28, 2011. Only 16 days following the parliamentary members event and two months after Afghan National Security Forces formally took control of policing the capital, insurgents attacked the Embassy killing 7 and wounding 19 people.
Image: S.K.Vemmer/U.S. State Department

Incidences of violence against women has been rising clearly in the past few years. This rise in violence against women may provide a mirror of the instability inside Afghanistan itself.

Power politics among Afghan government agencies and the rise in political and violent clashes between insurgents, criminal gangs that make up corrupt cells inside the country, Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army and external military campaigns connected to NATO show that dangers for women in a war zone are part of a haunting and tangible reality for most women living inside the country.

In 2010 civilian deaths in the country numbered 2,777+ – the highest number since 2001.

“On the surface, security conditions in the capital city appear relatively stable. The nexus between criminal enterprises, insurgent networks and corrupt political elites, however, is undermining Kabul’s security and that of the central-eastern corridor,” says the International Crisis Group, headed by President and CEO, Louis Arbour, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Afghan citizens, meanwhile, are squeezed on all sides – by the government, the insurgency and international forces.”

“Death is so close to us, where every second and every minute of our life, we consider and accept that we might not be here the next minute,” said Kandahar Province native Rangina Hamidi during a June 20, 2011 interview for , following the meeting of the Afghanistan National Consultative Peace Jirga as the Peace Jirga discussed those who would, or would not, become part of the new High Peace Council.

The number of those brought into the High Peace Council was made through 68 appointees made by President Karzai, but included only 10 women. “And so, if talking to the Taliban would mean bringing peace and stability to the level where I don’t have to think about death every second of my life, then I’m for it,” added Hamidi.

The situation for women is reaching a critical mass as women’s leadership opportunies inside the country is in a sharp decline. “The precarious situation for Afghan women is set against a backdrop of spreading insecurity across Afghanistan,” says Oxfam. “As security deteriorates across the country, violence against women is also on the rise.”

The more that women push forward with education, inclusion and opportunity the more that regional Taliban factions fight back against progress for women. Peace and conditions for women’s human rights on-the-ground in Afghanistan are tied together much more closely in terms of success for peace in Afghanistan. This is a fact, it seems, the current international and local leadership will not fully or publicly admit.

“I live in a region where death is part of life in a way that is not understood in a lot of parts of the world,” said Hamidi, an entrepreneur who runs an embroidery business in Kandahar.

“Only 10 women were appointed to the High Peace Council despite strong national and international pressure for adequate representation of women in negotiating teams and forums,” said Amnesty International in its on Afghanistan.

“There are no short cuts to peace in Afghanistan,” says Hancock and Nemet.  “The only way forward is a transparent and inclusive peace process involving representatives from all parts of Afghan society, including women. The more that women feel involved in and committed to a political settlement which safeguards their rights, the more likely they are, within their families and communities, to promote changes in attitude and genuine reconciliation – essential for a lasting peace,” they add.

“What we know is they (women) have risen up and succeeded despite their circumstances and it is up to us to help fulfill the promise for our sisters there to fulfill their full potential,” said Zalbi.

For those who want to see positive change in Afghanistan the responsibility exists to encourage open dialogue. “Western leaders have a responsibility toward Afghan women, not least because protection of women’s rights was sold as a positive out-come of the international intervention in October 2001,” says the recent October Oxfam release. “Ten years on, however, time is running out to fulfill these promises.”

In response to a demand for qualified Afghan engineers, Kabul University hosted an intensive five-month Mentor Protégé Training Program with 10 female fourth year university students. Four of the ten students celebrate here after completing the program March 16, 2011. Image: USAID