The notion that women need the indefinite protection of international battalions fails to recognise the glass ceilings broken by determination rather than debris during America’s longest war. Afghan women must now play a central role in peace talks too, argue an anonymous female Afghan journalist in Kabul and Professor Carey Cavanaugh in the US.
The window to protect the significant gains made in women’s rights in Afghanistan is rapidly closing. By September 11, that symbolic anniversary, all US and coalition military forces are expected to have departed, fulfilling US President Joe Biden’s commitment to end America’s longest war. With efforts to craft a negotiated peace agreement deadlocked, the fate of the human rights successes achieved over the past twenty years risks being left largely to the whims of the Taliban insurgents.
The progress achieved on women’s rights in Afghanistan has been profound. Under earlier oppressive Taliban rule, Afghan girls and women were prohibited from attending school and from working in most jobs outside of the home. Today, more than one third of all Afghan students are female and adult women can be found working throughout the professions – in education, healthcare, and business, even in parliament. These advances have started to transform Afghan society. Despite lacking the privileges afforded men, Afghan women have worked, struggled and defended their newly gained rights helping their country advance along the path toward bringing about a fuller democracy.
A key sector in which this change can be seen is journalism. Despite this being one of the most dangerous occupations and the numerous gender barriers facing females working in media, Afghan women rose to the challenge. The Afghan Women Journalists Centre reports that the country has 1,496 women journalists: 764 are employed as professionals, with the remainder working informally. The majority are employed in major urban areas – Kabul, Herat and Balkh – where Afghan culture has changed the most. Far fewer women have been able to engage in media work in rural regions. In fact, five of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces continue to be served exclusively by male reporters, producers, writers and editors.
Afghanistan’s female journalists have facilitated a steady improvement in the breadth and quality of the nation’s media coverage. Not only has their presence increased the diversity of newsrooms, but the classic way of writing and reporting the news has also changed – assisted in part through mentoring from globally renowned journalists facilitated by organisations such as International Alert and its Afghan partner organisation [name redacted*]. Today, Afghanistan has two television channels aimed at female audiences (Bano TV and Zan TV) with many of their reporters and presenters being women. Even more encouraging, there are now several radio stations, online media sites, and newspapers – serving all genders – that are managed and delivered by women.
The United Nations has long emphasized that in conflict-affected areas greater inclusion of women is fundamental to achieving peace, stressing that the narratives of the whole country must be fed into a national discourse available to all citizens that reflects all perspectives. Via their reporting, Afghanistan’s female journalists have not only advanced this discourse, but have shown the next generation by their own example the important role women can and should play in modernizing Afghan society. Unfortunately, women have remained underrepresented in the formal talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and neither party appears to have placed a high priority on maintaining or advancing women’s rights.
If peace is ever to come to this war-torn land, let alone further moves toward democracy, the gains that have been made on human rights in Afghanistan must be preserved. This should not require the continued presence of US or coalition military forces. Foreign military forces have never been the essential instrument for advancing the rights of women – it has always been the women themselves, with the firm backing of the international development and peacebuilding communities.
We have already heard strong statements of support from New York, Washington, London and Brussels underscoring the importance of preserving the gains in human rights in Afghanistan. But words will not be enough to prevent the Taliban from reversing the progress that has been achieved. What is needed immediately is forceful diplomacy buttressed by firm political resolve.
World leaders must make clear to the Taliban that future legitimacy and international recognition will be dependent on proper respect for human rights. This political message will need to be supplemented with some continued development and humanitarian assistance. The international community has already invested over a billion dollars specifically targeted toward advancing women’s rights and gender equality in Afghanistan. Given the progress achieved, some steady funding will be instrumental.
At this crucial juncture, visible continued international political and economic support is essential. The peacebuilding sector and other nongovernmental organizations stand ready to engage with our partners on the ground; Afghanistan’s female journalists stand ready to help spread the word.
Carey Cavanaugh is Chair of the peacebuilding INGO International Alert. The seasoned American diplomat and peace mediator is currently professor of diplomacy and conflict resolution at the University of Kentucky. Under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Carey helped advance peace efforts involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Tajikistan and Turkey.
The co-author is a female Afghan freelance journalist and former reporter / presenter having graduated in Broadcast Journalism from Kabul University before participating in a mentoring programming created by the peacebuilding INGO International Alert and its Afghan partner, supported by journalists from media organisations such as Voice of America and the BBC.
*Due to events that took place in Afghanistan during August 2021 the name of the female journalist who co-authored this piece and Alert’s Afghan partner have been redacted to ensure their safety.