On February 28, over 700 Afghan women traveled from across the country to Kabul to take a stand for preserving women’s rights during ongoing peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. Gathered at a conference, women made their demands clear: there could be no peace without women’s rights. While the prospect of bringing the conflict to a long-awaited end elicits cautious optimism, women fear that a settlement negotiated with the Taliban could mean a backsliding in gender equality.
Experts familiar with negotiations agree that the most likely outcome will involve some form of power-sharing between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This might mean that the Taliban controls some territory or possibly shares leadership in government ministries. It is not yet clear what role the Taliban would play in a bipartite government, but some women in the country are concerned that their rights, protected by the constitution, will be lost during the negotiations or under the Taliban’s mandate. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001; during this time, women were forced out of schools and the workplace and required to abide by the Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law. Consequences for deviating from the rules were frequently violent. Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, has claimed that the group would guarantee women all rights granted by Islam, including education and the right to work. However, he also demanded the constitution be rewritten as a term for negotiation, which could potentially erase the legally enshrined rights of women.
Since the fall of the Taliban, women’s societal role has shifted. A quarter of representatives in parliament are women and, according to the Asia Foundation’s Afghanistan in 2018: A Survey of the Afghan People, 70.3% of respondents agree that women should be allowed to work outside the home. But there are still challenges to women’s empowerment. Literacy rates for girls are half that of boys and gender-based violence and harassment is still common. The fight for equality in Afghanistan is far from complete.
The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) supports gender equality in Afghanistan by implementing projects that increase women’s economic participation. Since 2017, CIPE has worked with the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce (AWCCI) to enhance their organizational capacity, increase their sustainability, and support their advocacy for women’s economic issues. To achieve these goals, CIPE has assisted AWCCI in developing core organizational documents and has linked staff and board members with the highly-successful Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) for regional knowledge-sharing. CIPE’s newly-established Center for Women’s Economic Empowerment (CWEE) views this initiative as a model for groups seeking to enhance organizational capacity for women’s chambers and business associations. CWEE will soon contribute to CIPE’s efforts to increase women’s economic empowerment in Afghanistan through a program that will establish a Women’s Business Resource Center in Kabul and assist local women business leaders in developing a Women’s Business Agenda.
Women must be given a seat at the negotiating table to ensure that they are able to retain the gains that they have made in business, politics, and society, and continue to push for further advancement. Thus far, the Afghan government has not been included in negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, as the latter contests the government’s legitimacy. American and Taliban representatives both support a plan that would draw down the presence of US troops over the course of three to five years, but they have additional matters to settle, including the possibility of holding talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. President Ghani will hold a loya jirga to discuss the progress of peace negotiations on March 17; the government was promised that 30% of the participants will be women. Demanding inclusivity in peace processes is necessary for women to play a role in shaping the future of Afghanistan.
The costs of the war are sobering: over 147,000 people have died as a direct result of war violence and many more have become displaced. The international community largely agrees that women tend to feel the greatest impacts of war; bringing an end to the conflict is of the upmost importance to women but preserving women’s rights must be a non-negotiable aspect of any deal cut by the Americans and the Taliban. Erasure of women’s rights cannot be the cost of peace.
Erinn Benedict is an Assistant Program Officer for Middle East and North Africa at CIPE.