Where are Afghanistan's women?
When Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in September 2018, an end to America’s longest war seemed finally to be in sight. Now, following President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement in late December that the United States will withdraw 7,000 of its troops from the country, the pressure on Khalilzad to secure a deal with the Taliban by spring has increased dramatically.
Many now fear that Trump wants to leave Afghanistan regardless of the consequences, least of all for the country’s women.
Afghan women’s progress is essential to that of Afghanistan as a whole. Yet women are suddenly as invisible in international press coverage as they are in much of Afghan society.
A potentially disastrous image problem
Privately, many diplomats concede that women’s rights are simply not a high priority in talks with the Taliban: nice but not necessary and, given the Taliban’s horrific treatment of women when they ruled the country in the 1990s, probably a non-starter anyway.
This line of thinking is wrong. The Taliban leadership know that they have a potentially disastrous image problem. The international community ostracised their government in the 1990s, owing in part to their treatment of women. To be accepted as a legitimate political movement and a viable partner in any future power-sharing deal, Taliban leaders believe they must demonstrate that they have changed their views.
And so they have – if ever so slightly. They now say that girls can attend school in the nearly 60% of the country under Taliban control, so long as gender segregation is enforced. This is a modest improvement from a generation ago, when their government prevented nearly all girls from attending school and women from working outside the home.
Womenʹs gains at risk
While Afghan women have made huge strides since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, their gains are at risk and much more remains to be done. In a recent survey of 15,000 Afghans, women said their biggest problems were lack of education and illiteracy. Investing in education and income-earning opportunities for women is vital. So, too, is redoubling efforts to improve women’s access to health care.
Afghan women face a one-in-ten chance of dying in childbirth. The situation is so dire that Taliban commanders have been known to request the government and NGOs to deploy more midwives to areas under their control.
The number of girls in school is falling, legal protection for women is being rolled back and women in public life are increasingly subject to harassment and violence. Addressing these issues is essential not only for Afghan women, but also for their children, their families and the country.
Include women at the negotiating table
The best way to ensure that women’s interests are represented in the peace talks is to include women at the negotiating table, giving them an equal role in the negotiation, design and implementation of any peace process.