Women’s participation is key to sustainable peace in Afghanistan

News from Afghanistan continues to produce what seem to be the potential first flickers of a more peaceful future on the horizon.Talks between various actors in Doha and Moscow hint at the possibility of dialogue between the various factions of the ongoing conflict, though much caution is still advised.

Yet key voices are still missing from this infant process, most notably the elected Afghan government, but equally important are those of women, minorities and civil society.

The inclusion of these groups is important if the peace being negotiated is to be sustainable, and not simply meaning an absence of war. Afghanistan faces many challenges today, but we need to acknowledge and safeguard the progress that has been made in recent years, despite the ongoing insurgency, regional disputes, economic hardship and drought.

The progress on gender equality for example has been gradual and sometimes imbalanced but real and worthy of recognition. Women’s participation in public and political life, once banned under the Taliban, is a reality with female parliamentarians, civil servants and representatives on the High Peace Council representative of this shift. The Afghan National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security represents a genuine effort to create improvements, even if its effects are too rarely felt by the majority of Afghan women.

There is a real risk though that these fragile gains will be jeopardised in the power plays of the impending negotiations, and in the rush to reach a hasty agreement to facilitate the withdrawal of US troops or meet unrealistic deadlines like July’s presidential elections.

As peacebuilders, we understand that peace processes are long, complex and multi-faceted beasts, often better understood as a series of concurrent and interconnected processes than one simple linear progression from war to peace. We understand, too, the factors that mean that most peace processes fail, either during negotiations or while trying to implement agreements. But experience has shown us that peace agreements that meaningfully include women’s voices in the negotiations are more likely to hold. Studies show that when civil society groups, including women’s organisations, participate in a peace process, it is 64% less likely to fail. Similarly, women’s participation in peace processes is shown to make the resulting agreement 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.

Some of emerging rhetoric surrounding women’s rights is optimistic. The Taliban has, since long before this current round of negotiations, been espousing reformed views on women’s rights within an Islamic context, their softer tone marking a significant juxtaposition to the cruel oppression with which they ruled before 2001. Women’s rights were mentioned as part of the nine points that emerged from the Moscow talks and female participants took place in negotiations in both Moscow and Qatar, though conspicuously not on the Taliban side of the table. Yet many questions remain on whether this rhetoric will change in order to appease the Taliban into becoming a legitimate, non-violent political actor, and women’s groups have already expressed concerns about their needs being side-lined for the sake of convenience and expediency.

At International Alert, we have a special focus on working with Afghan women and recognising the vital role they play in a peaceful future. Whether working with inclusive women’s groups of peacebuilders or with female journalists, our goal is to help promote women’s voices in important public spaces.

The inclusion of women’s voices and the protection of their rights should be a key component of the upcoming negotiations. Those involved need to make sure that inclusive and meaningful efforts are prioritised, not simply throwaway lines at the bottom of an agreement text created to serve the interests of powers with little or no regard for Afghan citizens.