The Afghan Government and international community are both keen to change the status quo and enter into results-oriented talks with the Taliban. However, concerns around the equal rights of women and the enhancement of their role in Afghan society must be addressed if peace is to be found and sustained.
The inclusion of women in the peace negotiations has been one of the key debates over the past few years. In the last decade or more, significant progress has been made – both with regards to women’s position within society but also more specifically on the role they have been playing in the peace process. Despite this progress there is still a long way to go. As an article in Conciliation Resources’ latest publication exploring the possibilities for peace in Afghanistan highlights, there are both opportunities and challenges for including women in the Afghan peace process.
The emergence of new regional players in the Afghan peace talks, as well as the number of different discussions taking place around the negotiations, which are happening at multiple locations with very little connection between them, is leading to confusion. This complication makes it difficult for Afghan women to tap into the process and occupy an influential space at the table. But any peace negotiations must place women front and centre, in order for peace itself to be achieved.
The negotiating team
Meanwhile, there has been strong acknowledgement of the importance of women’s participation from those driving this process. President Ashraf Ghani recently appointed a team consisting of three women and nine men to lead talks with the Taliban. The presence of women in this negotiating team is a very positive sign. In addition, a statement by the President, that "the constitutional rights and obligations of all citizens, especially women, should be ensured" provides further reassurance. However, this optimism must be tempered by the need to ensure women are not just present but playing a meaningful role in the process. It is not enough to have token female representation in the negotiations. Instead, through a transparent stance and strategy for negotiations, we need to make sure the discussions taking place recognise women formally as equal parties to the negotiations. There should also be no room for compromise on the interests and rights of Afghan women citizens in future Afghan society.
The capacity and expertise of the negotiation’s team is generally under criticism by Afghan experts. The majority of the team, including the women representatives, already hold key positions in the government and therefore have limited capacity to concentrate on the peace negotiations and on creating strategies for achieving long-term peace in the country. The necessity for a dedicated and expert negotiations team, which holds the resources, expertise and authority to make decisions, remains if peace is to be a priority.
Clear negotiations framework
The absence of a clear framework or strategy for the negotiations has been one of the main factors preventing women from effectively feeding into the process. This lack of structure also raises further unanswered questions around the terms of the negotiations and expected outcomes – leaving the role and influence of the women representatives unclear.
Many Afghan women leaders have expressed this concern to me during my personal interactions with them. Without a clear framework, it is difficult for Afghan women to navigate their way through the complex structures and processes to ensure they are able to meaningfully participate and have influence.
In ensuring women are sustainably and effectively included in the peace process, the participation of women in the formal negotiations is essential. However, recognising and paying attention to the role they play in informal and semi-formal mediation efforts is perhaps more important.
For the past 17 years women in Afghanistan have been an integral part of wider peace efforts, contributing significantly to building peace within societies. There are numerous examples of where Afghan women have taken part in mediation at a community-level, or in cases where they have a formal seat in the dangerous processes of negotiating with armed and other groups. They have also been instrumental in mediating between the various different parties with a stake in the conflict to reach a consensus for peace. Despite these efforts and achievements, their crucial role has often not been recognised and they haven't effectively been included in the formal negotiations so far.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that the Afghan Government itself is not being recognised as a direct party for negotiations by the Taliban. The quadrilateral meeting (as defined by the Afghan Government) between the Taliban, Afghan Government, USA and Saudi Arabia this week, where the Taliban refused any direct engagement with the Afghan representatives, highlights the broader challenges that the Afghan Government faces.
Although Afghan women have been proactively organising themselves and contributing to the broader peace process in multiple different ways, the lack of a precise, efficient and inclusive framework for dialogue with the Taliban presents continued challenges. A clear framework, informed by the efforts and processes taking place at all levels to strengthen the position of women, would enable those working for change to contribute to negotiating terms and influencing the process. This would ensure the adequate inclusion of women and other excluded or vulnerable groups.
Support for a lasting peace
The Afghan Government and international community have a responsibility to continue to demonstrate their interest in ensuring women are included in the peace process. There is a need for commitment to providing technical, political and financial support for women in Afghanistan, as well connections between the women operating at different levels, so they can further organise their efforts to have a greater impact and influence.
As well as an opportunity for peace, this is a chance to demonstrate women are treated as equals in any future Afghan society. The Afghan Government has an opportunity to utilise public support for peace and inclusion as a strength in this new wave of peace efforts. Without this, and without the meaningful and substantial inclusion of women and other excluded groups – both in reaching a peace agreement and in the subsequent implementation of the deal – we could see a compromise on the rights of Afghan women, and Afghan society generally. Undoing the progress made with respect to the hard-won rights of women could ultimately present one of the biggest obstacles to achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan and in the region.