Afghan Women and Peace: Caught between redlines and shifting sands

Create: 04/17/2019 - 09:00

This briefing paper looks into the current state of inclusive peacebuilding in Afghanistan against the backdrop of talks in Moscow and Doha, and the growing Afghan women and civil society movement around peace. It particularly draws on the provincial level capacities and experiences of peace building among women, as witnessed in six provinces where AWEC has conducted peace workshops to connect the voice of diverse communities to the broader dialogues that are taking place across the country.
The briefing paper has been written as part of project Safhe Jaded: Implementing the Afghan NAP 1325 by Linking Inclusive Security and Justice, which is coordinated by AWEC, Cordaid and Oxfam and funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands within the framework of the third Dutch National Action plan (2016-2019).
After decades of conflict and insurgency, a formal peace process might finally be possible in Afghanistan. The recent talks in Doha between U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and Taliban representatives a peace deal has never looked closer as it does now. Reports indicate that progress has been made on a deal with the Taliban, whose major demand, and the cornerstone of their 18-year insurgency, is the withdrawal of foreign troops.
At the same times, Russia has hosted a series of talks in Moscow between the Taliban and political leaders from Afghanistan. Both parallel talks currently exclude the Afghan government.
It appears the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay has given new momentum, or the Taliban has seized President Trump’s desire to potentially withdraw American forces from Afghanistan as an opportunity to push this process in a direction that furthers their agenda. 
The talks- not to be confused with a formal peace process-come at a time when Afghanistan has suffered the most bloody year after the fall of the Taliban regime. According UNAMA released statistics indicating that in 2018 almost 11,000 civilians were either wounded or killed due to the armed conflict. Attacks by the Taliban as well as other insurgent groups are still rampant and fighting continues on a daily basis. It is clear that Afghanistan has not yet reached post-conflict status.
The fact that the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban, instead of the Afghan government itself should raise eyebrows as key issues such as the continuation of intra-Afghan dialogue, the Afghan Constitution, women’s rights, and a ceasefire are being discussed. While in principle, these are all important issues, there has been a clear shift in the narrative on peace from an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned processes to an international initiative in Doha that aims to pave the way for such intra-Afghan dialogue, but clearly also rejects other interests. There are serious concerns that excluding the Afghan government from such talks is transferring legitimacy to the Taliban, while talking it away from the elected administration that the international community has invested so much in.
Until now, the Taliban has refused to negotiate with representatives from the Afghan government as it perceives then as the illegitimate government of Afghanistan.
Despite of massive fraud and lack of transparency that characterized that past presidential election of 2014, the Afghan government came into being through democratic process, in which millions of Afghan women and men were eager to cast their votes despite insecurity and intimidation. A legitimate government should never be excluded from a negotiation process that for a large extent will determine how it’s future and the future of its people. Especially not when many lives and resources have been sacrificed to ensure that this government is strong, capable and democratic. Besides the Afghan government, another voice has been excluded from the talks: that of Afghan women.
Afghan women suffered most under the Taliban’s rule. They have legitimate concerns of losing what they have gained during the post decades. Although the government and the international community’s rhetoric intends to reassure women that their rights will be protected, there is no way of guaranteeing this when there are no clear red lines for peace negotiations.  When the Taliban were in power, women were not allowed to participate in public or political life. Even though much change is still needed since 2001, considerable progress has been made regarding the rights of Afghan women. They are now present and representing other women, at all levels of the Afghan social and political scene.
It is however, unfortunately, not uncommon for Afghan women to be excluded from negotiations and decisions that affect their lives and future. For example, in 2014 Oxfam released a report in which 23 formal and informal peace talks were tracked. From the talks between the Taliban and the international community, not a single one included a female representative.
In other talks, women’s inclusion was limited to two meetings held in the Maldives and three in France.
With the current status of the peace process-no formal process that internationally sponsored talks in Doha( Taliban and US) and Moscow(Taliban and Afghan political elite)- Afghan women (and youth) are concerned that any deal with the Taliban will endanger these gains and will mean a return to the days of the Taliban. This because a major concern is that a troop withdrawal will be more important for the U.S. than the specific details of an agreement with the Taliban. Taking a short cut to reach an agreement could then mean that women’s rights will not be a priority for the United States. 
While women generally agree on what should be the read lines in peace negotiations with the Taliban, they also fell that their hard-won gains are on shifting sands given the unpredictable and exclusive nature of peace talks.
In 2000, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on Women, Peace, and Security recognizing that women and girls disproportionally suffer from conflict. The Resolution stresses the importance of increasing women’s participation in the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict as well as all matters related to peace and security. To implement UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions that constitute the normative Women, Peace and Security agenda to date, the government of Afghanistan launched the ‘Afghan National Action Plan’ (NAP) in June 2015. However, it was not until April 2018 that an agreement was reached between the Afghan government and the international community about the activity-based budget for the NAP.
The NAP has the potential to be a catalyst for Afghan women’s rights and inclusion, but it requires Afghan women’s meaningful participation so that their voices can effectively become part of peace processes.
To ensure sustainable peace, it is imperative for all actors to come together and support efforts that ensure that Afghan women voices are heard, heeded and included in all phases of a peace-building process at village and district levels.
While Afghan women have so far not been fully recognized or engaged as stakeholders or participants in the current peace talks, women ‘peace-makers’, women’s groups and female leaders all across Afghanistan have been playing key roles in conflict resolution at local, district and national levels, while developing new models of peacebuilding. Especially the grassroots peacebuilding roles are far removed from the spotlights of national level peace negotiations with the Taliban that tend to make the headlines. Such women-led peace initiatives are key in building a culture of peace, as they are the ones taking care of and nurturing the next generation of this country.
For example, elderly women play significant roles in resolving disputes in communities for years, especially in family-related disputes, or disputes involving women and girls. And just last year, dozens of women joined the Helmand sit in and Jalalabad peace march urging parties to a ceasefire. Their choice to speak out and urge parties to end the conflict is an indication that the Afghan women are now more confident and encouraged to play their part in the future discourse of their country.
However, given the current pace of talks with the Taliban, Afghan women rightly fear that their hard-earned gains and advancement could be jeopardized. Organisations such as the Afghan Women Network (AWN) have spoken out and demanded that Afghan women should be considered as an important part of any peace negotiations. Women’s participation in the Bonn conference paved the way for their active contribution to the country’s social, economic, legal, cultural and political matters. We must build on the best practices and ensure women have meaningful participation in the current peace processes. 
Surprisingly, some external voices have been critical of these demands. A key example is a public opinion piece by Cheryl Benard – the wife of U.S. special Envoy Zalmay – who stated that Afghan women have not actually been fighting for their rights, but only demanded that others (namely the U.S.) ensure their rights are protected. Not only does it seem a conflict of interest that she issues such statements, but more importantly; the article diminishes all the hard work done by Afghan women in the past eighteen years. A response to this article by Palwasha Hassan was published describing Afghan women’s fight so far, and stating that women were claiming their rights long before receiving support of the United States and other counties. Insinuating anything less is not only incorrect but also hurts their cause.
“We believe that any peace that threatens Afghan women’s rights, freedoms and gains will not be sustainable. Temporary restrictions on women’s rights in the name of peace and security is utterly unacceptable. Therefore, on the conclusion of any peace agreement, women’s rights to life, education, healthcare, freedom of movement, right to engage in political and economic activities and so on must be guaranteed.” Afghan women Network six points agenda in the run-up to the Moscow talks in February
Besides the negotiations taking place in Doha, other developments and initiatives towards peace have been made in recent, and coming, weeks. A parallel track of talks was held in Moscow, President Ghani has called for a Loya Jirga to be held on the coming weeks and recently an all-female conference on peace was held in Kabul. After the end of the conference, a statement was released by the participating women. The key message from the group was that ignoring women’s rights and not including women in the peace process means that compromises to reach any peace deal are made for political purposes. The group also reminded the negotiating parties that the rights of women should not be ignored, forgotten or sacrificed. This echo calls from women’s groups and civil society. What is striking is that, while Afghan civil society is very diverse, it increasingly managed to come together with a joint strategy that demands inclusion of women in peace negotiations.
Moreover, at a recent consultation in February this year with civil society hosted by the NATO Senior Civilian Representative Office, Afghan women showed their concern over the Taliban interpretation of women’s Right and insisted on the imperative of women’s meaningful participation in the peace talks.
Prior to Moscow talks, Afghan Women Network (AWN) issued a six point’s agenda to remind the participants about their concerns and to make sure that they will not allow Afghan women’s struggle to go in vain. Their main demand was that the Afghan women should be considered as an impairment part of any future peace negotiations.  On February 28, 2019 hundreds of women from 34 provinces gathered in Kabul under the umbrella of the Afghan women’s National consensus (AWNC) to share their perspectives, voice their concerns and demands for peace. The gathering issued an unanimous declaration calling on the government, Taliban and other armed opponent groups to immediately put a stop to war and declare an unconditional ceasefire, promoting peace through education and creating employment opportunities across the country.
Key points from the consultation with civil society, hosted by the NATO Senior Civilian Representative Office (24 February 2019)

  •  If and where possible, Afghan women should try to push for meetings with Taliban representatives, with the purpose to seek clarity on their position on women’s rights. So far, statements from the Taliban on women have been difficult to interpret;
  •  When women are asked to provide their input this is often on issues related to gender, women’s rights and equality, but they can (and should) speak about other topics as well. Consultations on any possible topic related to Afghan society and Afghanistan’s future should include women’s voices;
  •  It is imperative that when women are included in a negotiation process, they will be able to shape the agenda and contribute in a meaningful manner to any decisions made. Therefore, it is important which women are given a voice.

To make sure the voices of women are not limited to those from Kabul, AWEC arranged a series of peace workshops across six provinces to provide a conducive platform for ordinary Afghan women to share their views on any future peace deal with the Taliban and how a potential peace accord should look like at the local level.
Multi-ethnic provinces were selected to fully capture the diverse narratives and perspectives of women regarding the on-going peace process. The participants ranged from various backgrounds: Heads of Community Development Councils (CDCs), teachers, housewives and students. Most of the participants have been directly affected by the on-going conflict. This was intended to stimulate discussion on how Afghan women envision their role in the future of their provinces and how they want to contribute to sustainable and inclusive peace. 
The main topics discussed evolved around what their redlines or non-negotiable topics in any peace accord are, and how they can contribute towards peace and stabilization in their communities. They also discussed the necessary steps to be taken at the national level to ensure meaningful participation of all stakeholders in the process.
Strikingly, women from Nangarhar province feared that if the government is not able to win popular support from citizens, the Taliban’s support base will further grow as the insurgent group has made public support a key strategy. The participants stressed that peace will not be sustainable and Afghan society will not be stable if people do not see a way out of poverty due to lacking education and employment opportunities. Poor economic situations remain the main motivation towards radicalization and joining extremist groups.
The group was asked what their red-lines are in any continued talks with the Taliban, and again the participants were unanimous: they will not allow to compromise on the gains made in the past eighteen years. This included the current Afghan constitution, more freedom of expression, women’s increased role in society and development of their country, women’s right to work, vote, and to education.
Afghan women have on various occasions demanded their inclusion in the current negotiations. Not including women in the negotiations will not only endanger the sustainability of a peace deal, it also increases the risk that women’s needs and rights will not be protected. The prospect of a potential peace is motivating, but this should not mean that the progress that women in Afghanistan have made should be neglected.
Not including women in the peace talks means that old power structures remain in place – meaning that the current route taken risks benefitting those who started the insurgency, while once again sidelining and potentially even harming Afghan women.
When the women were asked how a stable situation at the provincial or local level can be created in a post-Taliban and government deal, they were clear in their demand that each group must adhere to the commitment they agreed to in any hypothetical deal. It was added that peace cannot be restored or be sustainable if one or all of the groups break their promises. In order to avoid such a scenario, they suggested the appointment of a guarantor on a national and local level. They feared that in the absence of a guarantor at local level the Taliban is able to return to their villages to harm civilians who oppose to Taliban’s ideology. The women were however not able to indicate which actor or institution could take on such a role. Moreover, the consulted women stated that a vital part of an agreement with the Taliban must include a disarmament component. It is important, however to make sure that any disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process would be gender-sensitive from the start and would include women in its implementation.
The women further mentioned that they are willing and ready to play a role on the local level to mend ties between families that were once at odds with each other, referring to families that supported the Taliban versus the Afghan government. This demonstrates the motivation of Afghan women to help bring peace to their country and communities; these efforts and the general commitment of women should be utilized instead of being ignored in a power play between the United States Russia, the Afghan political elite and the Taliban. The latter can never be a substitute for Afghan-led and Afghan-owned negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that would cover all levels of society.
Based on these provincial consolations, and on the statements from various women’s rights organisations, CSOs and women’s representatives over the past months, the following key recommendations are put forward:

  •  Reintroduce ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ as key principles of any peace negotiations in Afghanistan. Negotiations excluding the legitimate government will only empower the Taliban and can never produce intra-Afghan negotiations that are fully Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
  •  None of the parties that are negotiating with the Taliban should compromise on the interests of the Afghan people, and Afghan women in particular; any deal must ensure and protect their human, social, political and economic rights. More importantly, their rights should be protected and represented by having Afghan women at the table and allowing them to participate in a meaningful manner;
  •  If and where possible, Afghan women representatives should engage with representatives from the Taliban to seek clarity on their position on women’s rights. The outcomes of these consultations should then be used to inform the peace talks and steer these in a direction in which women’s rights are protected;
  •  Moreover, women should not just be included in consultations to provide input on gender or women’s rights issues. It is imperative that their voice is included on all topics determining Afghanistan’s future; If a peace deal is struck or a cease-fire is agreed to, a mechanism should be devised to disarm Taliban fighters and integrate them back into Afghan society. Afghan women emphasis that the focus of disarming should not be limited to Taliban fighters but should also include other insurgent groups, local warlords and militia;
  •  Parties must ensure that the search for peace in Afghanistan does not become dependent on or entangled with the political election campaigns in the run-up to the presidential elections in September 2019;
  •  Parties must refrain from agreeing to a hasty accord that facilitates a quick American troops withdrawal, or a deal that sidelines key concerns for the sake of efficiency or gaining time;
  •  In order to avoid chaos and instability on the local or national level, it will be vital to have proper monitoring mechanisms at national and international level in place. This needs to have a mandate to act in case of a breach of the agreements;
  •  If a peace agreement or ceasefire is agreed on with the Taliban, special attention should be directed towards interaction and negotiations with other power brokers, local militia and AOGs, so those do not act as potential spoilers.