Afghan women activists are at risk of being sidelined at a key international conference on Afghanistan's future scheduled for December 5, 2011, in Germany, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Bonn Conference will take place on the 10th anniversary of the 2001 Bonn Conference, which marked the end of the Taliban era and the appointment of a transitional government headed by Hamid Karzai. The 2011 Bonn Conference will focus on three main issues: the transition of security forces as the international military begins to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014; potential negotiations to seek a peace agreement with the Taliban; and the relationships between Afghanistan and other countries after 2014. All three issues are critical to the rights of women, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Afghan government and its international backers say that women's rights are one of their ‘red lines' as they plan for the withdrawal of international forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If this is the case, why are Afghan women struggling to get a seat at the table in Bonn?”
Among those invited to the conference are Afghan and foreign government delegations and representatives of nongovernmental and civil society organizations. But with only five weeks remaining before the conference's start, the Afghan government has not yet confirmed whether women will be a part of the government's delegation, and conference organizers have not provided a specific speaking slot for representatives from women's rights groups. The Afghan government's key donors and facilitators of the conference, including Germany and the United States, do not appear to have made women's rights a priority for the meeting.
Women's rights activists from a variety of organizations and regions across the country, working through an umbrella group called the Afghan Women's Network, have developed a consensus platform to address the three main agenda items of the conference, and nominated a delegation to communicate the message. This delegation, however, has not been invited to Bonn to attend as full participants, nor has it been offered the three-minute speaking slot provided to each conference delegation.
Instead, conference organizers contend that women's issues can be addressed by a separate civil society delegation, which has been given three minutes to speak. Civil society groups are likely to focus on a broad set of issues that complement but do not specifically address women's rights, such as strengthening democratic institutions, good governance, freedom of speech, anti-corruption, and security. The women's rights delegation, by contrast, has developed a platform that focuses on how security transition, negotiations with the Taliban, and international partnerships should address the needs of women. Among other aims, the women's delegation wants to ensure that women have a significant role in negotiations with Taliban groups.
“The idea that a broad range of topics crucial to Afghanistan's future can be raised by a single delegation, representing all perspectives, in only three minutes, is ridiculous,” Adams said. “Participants at the Bonn Conference need to hear the concerns of Afghan women's groups and others in civil society, each in their own, distinctive voices.”
All countries planning to participate in the Bonn Conference should raise with the Afghan government the importance of women's participation at the conference and make clear that their delegates expect to hear from women leaders, Human Rights Watch said. Germany should exercise its influence as the host and as a country that contributes troops and aid to Afghanistan to convince the Afghan government to include the women's group as a full participant and provide a speaking slot.
Human Rights Watch noted that a wide range of women's rights issues could be discussed at Bonn. Women in public life in Afghanistan face harassment, threats, and sometimes even assassination from forces hostile to women's empowerment. Women who have stepped forward to take leadership roles in spite of these risks have done so at great personal cost. Early marriage and forced marriage are commonplace. Violence against women is commonplace and women fleeing violence or forced marriage are often imprisoned. Female literacy, maternal mortality, and infant mortality rates remain among the worst in the world. Significant progress has occurred on many of these issues since 2001, but it is a necessity to guard and continue this progress, Human Rights Watch said.
The Afghan government should ensure that the government delegation draws on the resources of women leaders in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said. One rare area of success for women's rights in Afghanistan since 2001 has been the number of women elected to the Afghan parliament and appointed to key leadership positions in government institutions and civil society. But it is important for women leaders actually to be involved in acts of governance. As the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has noted, “The concept of democracy will have real and dynamic meaning and lasting effect only when political decision-making is shared by women and men and takes equal account of the interests of both.”
A 2000 United Nations Security Council resolution has also stressed the importance of women's “equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for […] peace and security,” which “can significantly contribute to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.”
The Afghan government should make a public commitment that a minimum of 25 percent of the official Afghan delegation to the Bonn Conference – and preferably more – will consist of women who hold leadership positions in the Afghan government and civil society, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Bonn conference will be a key moment for the Afghan government to recommit itself to protecting women's rights,” Adams said. “Participating governments should remember their lofty promises over the past 10 years, making women's rights a benchmark for measuring success in Afghanistan. Marginalizing women at Bonn would be a retrograde step.”