As Afghanistan looks to a future without U.S. troops, the Kabul government says reconciling with the Taliban is critical to making peace after nearly 10 years of war. Some human rights activists are concerned that reconciliation could lead to a return of the repressive conditions they suffered during Taliban rule. But Afghan Labor and Social Affairs Minister Amina Afzali says the process will be at no cost to the progress already made by women in her country.
“All those who join the peace process must respect the Afghan constitution, and women's place in society is part of the Afghan constitution,” Afzali told VOA.
The Taliban nearly erased women's rights when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, preventing girls from going to school and women from working outside the home. Under the Taliban, women were required to wear burqas, covering themselves from head to toe.
“It cannot be compared. Under the Taliban, life was difficult for both men and women,” she said. “The right to life was snatched from women.”
It is a far cry from the life Afzali leads today. The veteran human rights activist and former science professor wore a long grey business jacket over pants and a hijab covering her hair during her visit to VOA's studios. It was one of many stops in a busy three-day visit to Washington last week that included meetings with members of Congress, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Erik Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, and officials from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, women have slowly but steadily regained a voice in society. Afzali is one of three women serving in the cabinet of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In addition, women hold 69 seats in the lower house of parliament, one more than the number reserved for them.
Women's attempts to reclaim their former roles in society have not come without danger. There was an increase in intimidation of women candidates during last year's parliamentary elections. Death threats from the Taliban surfaced for many of the approximately 400 women who ran for seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament.
Despite those threats, President Hamid Karzai is pursuing a U.S.-backed plan to reintegrate low-level members of the Taliban into the political process.
Afzali says the government recognizes women are a valuable part of the peace process, citing the five who sit on the High Peace Council, a 70-member group created to facilitate reconciliation with the Taliban.
Human Rights Watch is one of the groups expressing concerns about reconciliation with the Taliban. Liesel Gerntholtz, the director of the New York-based group's Women's Rights Division, points to the Shia Personal Status Law, which critics say enacts Taliban-style restrictions on Shi'ite women. The law allows a man to dictate his wife's comings and goings from the house and makes it a duty for a woman not to refuse sex when her husband wants it.
“Even though the government has put in place a constitution that recognizes women's equality, that you've had laws passed that are supposed to protect women from violence, we are still documenting failures on the part of the government, either to implement their own laws or where the government is actively seeking to reach out to conservative elements, including with the Taliban, by undermining women's rights,” Gerntholtz said.
Human Rights Watch wants reconciliation with the Taliban to include a vetting mechanism to ensure people responsible for serious human rights violations are excluded from the government.
Afzali said her government wants the international community to hold it accountable for any possible setbacks.
“We want all those countries which helped bring a great change in the status of Afghan women, [to] watch the peace process, to make sure the last 10 year's achievement do not get rolled back,” the minister said.
One area that is critical to the future of Afghan women and overall stability in the country is the issue of jobs and employment.
“We are working in this regards, Afghan government is determined that awareness about women rights happens all aspects of life. All projects, whether funded by donors of the government have Adult education and women's awareness as part of it. When women there are awareness among women about their rights, they themselves defend their rights,” said Afzali.
The Afghan Ministry of Labor, headed by Afzali, is providing vocational training throughout the country to prevent those fighters from returning to the insurgency, and dissuade others from joining.
“Employment has a direct impact on security and unemployment causes insecurity. Stability and peace can be brought with employment,” Afzali said.
The Afghan labor minister made it clear a peaceful and prosperous future for Afghan women, and men cannot be the work of her government alone. She said it requires the continued aid and support of the United States and its allies.
Taliban spokesmen have said their group will only consider peace talks when international forces are out of Afghanistan. Kabul and its western allies are pursuing other means to stop the estimated 20,000 Taliban insurgents on the battlefield. About 1,700 Afghan fighters have laid down their arms in the past 10 months under the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, according to British Major General Phil Jones, who heads NATO's arm of the program.
In a conference call from Afghanistan last week, he told reporters that strategically, the numbers remain modest, but the reintegration program appears to represent a “sufficient relief valve” for insurgents to “step out of the fight and step into a peace program.”
The true test of Afghanistan's ability to jumpstart its economy and reconcile with the Taliban, while fighting for women's rights, will come later this year.
A drawdown of the approximately 100,000 U.S. troops in the country will begin in the coming months, as the U.S. takes steps to wrap up the decade-long war. A full exit of combat troops from the country is scheduled for 2014. But the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces has left many questioning how this might change the Afghan war strategy.
Afzali cautioned the drawdown should be gradual. She said Afghan forces should be fully trained and equipped “to the extent that they would replace the international forces.”