For years, women-led movements in Afghanistan have continually called for meaningful participation in the peace process and the protection and fulfilment of their human rights. Their calls have received increased attention in recent discussions in the UN Security Council and other key diplomatic spaces, particularly given fears among women in Afghanistan that their fundamental rights will be traded away in favor of a narrow security agreement or compromise with the Taliban. Now, with intra-Afghan talks potentially on the horizon, these interlinked issues of women’s participation in decision-making and the safeguarding of their human rights have renewed urgency and immediacy.
On 27 July 2020, an Arria-formula meeting was held on the topic of women and the Afghan peace process, co-hosted by Afghanistan and the United Kingdom as co-chairs of the UN Group of Friends of Women in Afghanistan along with Germany and Indonesia, the Security Council co-pen holders on Afghanistan. All of the co-hosts delivered introductory remarks on the timeliness of convening the discussion and importance of the event themes of the meaningful participation of women in the Afghan peace process; the promotion of their rights in the peace agreement, and the importance of the protection of recent human rights progress. Ambassador Al-Thani of Qatar, the country which has hosted most rounds of talks within the Afghan peace process, also delivered remarks following the panel discussion on her country’s role in facilitating the peace process. She highlighted that Qatar has committed to women’s participation in the upcoming process, and that women’s participation would lead to a more sustainable agreement.
Remarks by Panelists
Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan, delivered a keynote statement that focused on the work of Afghan women in calling for peace and the importance of not backsliding on women’s rights. “The subliminal message is that Afghan women must pay the price for peace. We beg to differ,” she stated. “We are citizens with rights and obligations.” She described Afghan women’s advocacy for peace at the national and global levels; their work to build social harmony within communities through unlearning violence and promoting discussions on what peace should look like; and their participation in mediation, conflict resolution, and national dialogues.
Hasina Safi, Minister of Women’s Affairs, started her presentation by reminding the meeting attendees that “Afghan women can lead their issues themselves,” and that women across Afghanistan are already leading the way for peace and should have their work invested in and supported. She called for the international community to back up the work of the Afghan government for women’s rights; support the second phase of the 1325 National Action Plan (NAP) implementation, including the focus on local government; and to remember that women in Afghanistan experience many of the same gendered inequalities as women around the world.
Ghazal Haris, Head of the Afghanistan Ombudsperson’s Office which assesses allegations of corruption against governmental officials, discussed the centrality of equality and meaningful separation of powers in the Afghan constitution and emphasized that there can be no compromise on the nature of republicanism, equal rights, and representative institutions in the constitution throughout the course of the peace talks.
Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), called for more participation of women in both negotiating teams, and for “victim-centered justice” to place women and girls at the center. She noted the minimum human rights obligations to which Afghanistan is a party, and which many Afghan people view as a priority in the peace talks.
Participation in the Peace Process
Inclusive peace processes are vital for the fulfillment of human rights as well as for building comprehensive and sustainable peace agreements. As WILPF Afghanistan noted in its submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) earlier this year, “Without an inclusive and comprehensive team for peace negotiations, tensions and mistrust in the peace process will continue.” However, they remarked that “the absence of meaningful representation of diverse civil society groups, especially of women, in the peace talks thus far is noticeable”. In 23 rounds of peace talks between 2005 and 2014, women were at the table on only two occasions. The negotiating team that was announced after the November 2018 conference in Geneva had three women, but no civil society representatives. Women were excluded from the United States-Taliban talks throughout 2019, as were issues of women’s rights, leading to widespread concern among Afghan women that their human rights would be compromised at these talks for the sake of an agreement.
All speakers at the Arria-formula meeting touched on the importance of women’s participation in the peace process, including noting the fact that four out of 21 members of the government negotiating team are women. There was broad-based support for the participation of Afghan women and women from civil society during all stages of the peace process, including women representing rural communities and other underrepresented constituencies. But considering the fact that there has long been lip service paid to these issues, far more detail was needed from Council members about exactly how support will be provided to ensure meaningful participation and the safeguarding of women’s rights.
Last year when she briefed the UN Security Council, Jamila Afghani, President of WILPF Afghanistan, called on the Council to ensure clear procedures for engaging Afghan women from different backgrounds. “It is not enough for Member States who support women’s meaningful inclusion in the peace process to voice support or offer closed-door consultations with Afghan women,” she stated in her briefing. “They must actively push for women to be publicly and actively engaged at the table and in building the future of their country in order to ensure sustainable peace for the nation.”
Niger suggested mechanisms for civil society to input concerns and proposals, arguing that without civil society the peace process was “incomplete”, and highlighted that civil society also plays a critical role in holding government actors accountable on policies relating to women and girls. St. Vincent and the Grenadines called for greater women’s participation in domestic architecture for peace. Belgium discussed its work with UN Women on supporting the second phase of the 1325 NAP implementation.
Safeguarding women's human rights
Another central theme of the discussion was about the related issue of safeguarding progress on women’s rights that has been made in recent years, and how this can only be done through an inclusive process. Some speakers highlighted the risk of backsliding if the peace negotiations lacked women’s participation or were limited to core “security” issues as opposed to more holistic arrangements.
Throughout the meeting, there was some discussion of both the generational and urban/rural dimensions of the arria themes, largely in the presentations of the panelists. Dr. Sarabi emphasized that both women in urban and rural areas want their rights to be preserved and protected, but that rural women often face increased barriers to expressing their social and political views freely. Minister Safi discussed the work of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to systematically engage women in the provinces to ensure that broader and more diverse perspectives are represented in the peace process.
On the generational aspect, it was mentioned that young women and girls now are growing up with increased legal protection of their rights, but still in a context of ongoing war and violence. Germany, the United States, and China mentioned the issue of girls’ education. The leadership of women and youth on COVID-19 response as well as advocacy for a ceasefire was noted by several speakers, and Niger called for the participation of youth in the peace process along with women and members of different ethnic groups. Belgium also brought up the devastating impacts of the war on children.
It was good to see some discussion of these elements, but the discussion could have been further enriched by exploring other intersectional issues, including the rights of women with disabilities. Furthermore, the leadership of women and youth civil society on issues including climate and environmental protection was not discussed, although land and water issues are important in the current situation in Afghanistan. As WILPF has long emphasized, it is important for the Council and member states to further connect the dots between these different areas and priorities, as well as bring disarmament issues into WPS discussions, in order to better enable holistic implementation of the WPS agenda and support inclusive peace processes that lead to comprehensive, sustainable agreements.
Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, “women’s rights” have been a key part of the framing of discussions on the war in Afghanistan. Calls to intervene “on behalf of” Afghan women were central to rhetoric justifying invasion, reflected in speeches in the US Congress, as well as framing in the media, and by White House. Echoes of this history were heard in the statement of the US during the Arria meeting, which noted that “women’s rights have always been central to the US engagement in Afghanistan.” However, during the US-Taliban talks last year, women were largely excluded from the process, in contravention of the US’ commitments including its National Strategy on Women, Peace and Security. Furthermore, the nearly two decades that have passed since the invasion have had devastating impacts on people including women and girls. It is critical to remember that violence, patriarchy, and social marginalization are structural and mutually-reinforcing forces, and therefore war is utterly incompatible with a world that fulfills human rights including gender equality. No war can secure women’s rights, and following decades of conflict, international actors must use their influence to ensure that the perspectives of people who have been advocating for peace are prioritized in decisions about the future of Afghanistan.
Barriers to participation and gender-based violence
There are numerous barriers to meaningful participation that, when unaddressed, inhibit women’s voices and perspectives from being heard. One such barrier is the attempted silencing of women’s voices through violence and intimidation. This violence creates an adverse climate for women’s participation in public life, and is a direct barrier that must be addressed in order for women to be able to participate fully. Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Norway, and SRSG Lyons all raised the critical issue of rising violence against women human rights defenders and peacebuilders, and called for greater protection and prevention of violence against them. The recent killing of Fatima Khalil was raised by the Dominican Republic. Several speakers, including Belgium and Vietnam, also raised the issue of the intimidation and violence faced by women politicians and journalists. Norway importantly called for more long-term, flexible, and core funding, which is sorely needed to help enable women civil society to continue their important work. SRSG Lyons discussed UNAMA’s support on a draft law on human rights defenders, as well as on a draft family law.
The 2020 WILPF Afghanistan submission to the CEDAW committee highlighted the many forms of violence faced by women and girls in Afghanistan, specifically insurgent violence, targeted attacks on schoolgirls and working women, rape and domestic violence, widespread physical and sexual abuse by State security forces, forced and child marriage, and honor killings. According to an announcement of the Ministry of Women Affairs, in 2019 there was a 20% increase in cases of domestic violence. During the Arria meeting, several speakers, including Belgium, the Dominican Republic, and France, highlighted with concern the increase in domestic violence and gender-based violence that has coincided with COVID-19 lockdowns, which is also occurring in many countries throughout the world.
Regarding participation, it would have been good to see more concrete mechanisms and commitments for ensuring that women are both at the table and able to fully and meaningfully participate. Without fail there was some discussion of capacity-building and training women in advocacy and negotiation to participate in and assess the peace process. While a few speakers raised the question of whether the Taliban would have any women representatives, most observers of the Taliban repertoire can confidently assure these speakers that if there are any women representatives in the Taliban delegation, they will least likely be advocating for the human rights and cause of women across the country. St. Vincent and the Grenadines asked what concrete measures would be required to ensure that diverse women participate in the process, and the panelists highlighted the importance of initiatives liaising with local government. No clear answers to these questions (and the numerous other questions posed) were provided, and it is also unclear when we are likely to see concrete, human rights-centered action around women’s participation and prevention of violence and erosion of women’s human rights through the actions of governments who speak as allies of Afghan women.
As intra-Afghan talks potentially approach, it is vital that the attention to women’s participation and rights translates into genuine, concrete action. Discussions on Afghanistan are among the few country-level discussions at the UN Security Council that are currently taking women into account, albeit in mostly superficial ways. Other country-level discussions, such as on Libya and Syria, frequently exclude a gender perspective, only occasionally reflecting on issues such as impacts of conflict on women and girls. But discussion or lack thereof is not the same as commitments, accountability for these commitments, and concrete action on the ground. Women’s activism and leadership can be powerful tools for social change, but no one can make change alone. It is not enough to laud Afghan women as saviors without providing them with all of the support they are requesting, and without fundamentally working to change an international order that enables war and rights violations to continue. In Afghanistan, Afghan women have repeatedly stated that their human rights are a red line for any agreement, and it is not possible to build “peace” that does not enshrine their rights. The international community, particularly Security Council members, must heed their calls.