Three Afghan women journalists and a medical doctor in the eastern city of Jalalabad were shot dead last week, part of a wave of killings—perpetrated by both ISIS and the Taliban—targeting rights activists, judges and journalists. The soaring violence in Afghanistan illustrates the stakes for Afghan women and civil society as the Afghan government and Taliban negotiate in Doha and the Biden administration considers its Afghanistan policy.

Afghan women at a conference in Kabul. The rise of a generation of educated, professional Afghan women is an undeniable sign of change, but amid peace talks, many are worried that the strides they have made are at risk. (Eros Hoagland/The New York Times)
Afghan women at a conference in Kabul. The rise of a generation of educated, professional Afghan women is an undeniable sign of change, but amid peace talks, many are worried that the strides they have made are at risk. (Eros Hoagland/The New York Times)

The talks have a long way to go but were given a jolt over the weekend with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Afghan President Ghani urging him and the other parties to accelerate talks before the May 1 U.S. troop withdrawal deadline and calling for an international conference in Turkey to discuss ways to break the current negotiating logjam. Blinken’s letter also referenced a concept paper for an agreement that was leaked over the weekend that, among other things, proposes a power-sharing agreement. There is a chance that a new negotiation process could include participants that have long been excluded from Afghan politics. Yet, we fear that in an effort to find compromise with the Taliban, a peace deal could weaken women’s voices and reverse the steady gains they have made over the past two decades.

Over the years we have worked with Afghan women at district, provincial and national levels to support their efforts to build peace, both from the grass roots and at the highest levels of government. Our aim has been to develop a cadre of women experts who are skilled in local- and top-level peace negotiations and implementation. Through our engagement with Afghan women, we have been given the opportunity to learn from them about the daunting obstacles they face—and what resilience looks like amid such immense challenges.  

Advancements for Women

The Taliban have made no secret of their attitudes toward women. During their years in power, they stripped them of their human rights, denying them freedom of movement and freedom from discrimination and degrading treatment. They took away their right to earn a living in a dignified manner. Penalties for exercising something as simple as the right to mobility and accessing services included public humiliation, beating and detention. Although they have seemingly softened their stance as part of their negotiation strategy, there is no guarantee that they will treat women as full and equal members of society once they are included in positions of power in a potential post-agreement government.

In the course of our partnership, Afghan women have pointed out how their country is becoming a more inclusive democracy:

  • There have been huge gains in girls’ education in the past 20 years;
  • There are now inter-agency gender units in each government ministry and family response units within police departments;
  • The Afghan government has developed a rich National Action Plan to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and established the High Commission for Women in Peace and several other institutions including a Ministry of Women’s Affairs to protect women’s rights and reverse the systemic discrimination imposed by prior mujahedeen and Taliban regimes; and
  • Women have become active members of local shuras and jirgas, taking part in traditional dispute resolution mechanisms.

This is just a snapshot of progress made for women’s participation in public life. In recent months, however, the peace process has sent Afghan women on a roller coaster ride of emotions. When the U.S.-Taliban talks began, their hopes for the end of four decades of war rose sharply. But as the terms of the talks became clear, those hopes cratered when women realized the protection of basic rights, particularly for women and minorities, was not on the table in the U.S.-Taliban talks that led to the signing of the Doha agreement and paved the way for intra-Afghan negotiations to commence.  

Our partners have shared their fears, particularly for their own personal safety, as prominent women activists became targets for assassination, just like those women in Jalalabad. One civil society leader told us, “Every morning when I leave home for work, I fear that might be my last morning alive.”

The recent killings of women civil servants, judges, journalists, teachers and medical personnel show that this concern is well-founded. While their commitment to defend their rights and the rights of their fellow citizens remains high, insecurity, targeted attacks and family pressure to lower their public visibility has pushed some to adopt a lower profile and resort to more subtle, and consequently less effective, advocacy. 

While this is clearly an issue of women’s rights and empowerment, it is also about the very future of Afghanistan. What is at stake for Afghanistan is huge—a representative democracy built on respect for rule of law, human rights and inclusion. Girls and women are the future of a democratic and inclusive Afghanistan and they need an environment in which they can develop and thrive.

What the United States Can Do

It is vitally important that the Biden administration remain committed to the values we promote internationally. Moreover, evidence from a range of peace processes over the past several decades shows that peace processes are more likely to fail if they do not include the demands of their societies—in this case the vast majority of women in Afghanistan.

The United States should remain engaged with the peace process and use its leverage to ensure women’s rights are protected and promoted. This leverage is often associated with U.S. troops levels. But there are other ways of applying pressure, for instance sanctions or tying aid to benchmarks on such issues as girls’ education, women’s participation in the work force and on the exercise of their fundamental human rights without fear of prosecution. Naming and shaming are also important. Regular government (or official) and independent reports on the state of women’s rights with help to keep the world’s focus on this critical issue. The United States should double down on these mechanisms while troops are withdrawn.

The voices of Afghan women from across the country must be heard. In a recent Afghan Women's Education Center report, 150 women from eight provinces said they felt that the U.S.-Taliban agreement was unlikely to benefit everyday Afghans. Afghan women from rural and urban areas alike are demanding that their rights and gains are safeguarded in a peace agreement.

Preserving the institutions and laws that have led to women’s gains is as critical now as it was when they were put in place in the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which established the Afghan state after the Taliban’s ouster. However, laws and institutions are only part of the solution. Afghanistan remains a traditional and patriarchal society, severely limiting women’s active role in the country’s social, political, economic and cultural affairs. While these constraints are easing in some places, there is a need for strong political will and grassroots advocacy to ensure that the patriarchal system and the Taliban’s narrow, conservative interpretation of Sharia do not further impede women’s progress.

The United States should engage with and support local civil society efforts to change attitudes in the country. Programs focused on constructing peaceful masculinities—addressing destructive male stereotypes in which the use of violence and restrictive protection of women is held up as honor rather than wrongs to be avoided—will serve as a complement to women empowerment programs. In transitioning from war to peace, Afghanistan cannot depend on foreign aid forever and will have to come to the realization that it is time to actively utilize the potential of more than half of its population. For that to happen, it must provide an enabling environment for women to rebuild their country into a peaceful and prosperous one.

The United States’ dedication and persistence to protect Afghan women's rights after toppling the Taliban regime paved the way for laws, institutions and policies implemented by the Afghan government. None of those efforts, however, would have been effective if it wasn’t for the determination, commitment and sacrifices of Afghan civil society, particularly women. The United States should honor those sacrifices and continue to support the brave, formidable women who stand in face of injustice to build a more peaceful, inclusive Afghanistan.

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