In Search of Peace, the U.S. Must Not Sacrifice the Rights of Afghan Women

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Written by LaTreshia A. Hamilton

Following a stalemate in December 2018, the United States recently resumed direct peace talks with Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, in the hope of bringing an end to the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan. When Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001, no one anticipated that the war would last this long—or be this costly. Yet, recent peace talks mark the first time in nine years of intermittent peace efforts that all sides appear to be serious about reaching a deal.

There’s just one thing missing from the negotiating table: women. A 2014 study by Oxfam International found that in 23 rounds of informal Afghan-Taliban peace talks between 2005 and 2014, women were present on only two occasions.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is no exception to the disparities that exist globally. Between 1990 and 2017, women constituted only two percent of mediators, eight percent of negotiators, and five percent of witnesses and signatories in all major peace processes around the world. To date, only two women, namely Miriam Coronel-Ferrer of the Philippines and Tzipi Livni of Israel, have ever served as chief negotiators. Moreover, only one woman, Coronel-Ferrer, has ever signed a final peace accord as chief negotiator.

Excluded from the peace talks, Afghan women now fear—and rightfully so—that in the legitimate search for peace, their newly won rights will be sacrificed during the negotiations. Under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women and girls were subjected to the Taliban’s fundamentalist, ultra-conservative interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. They were banned from public life: they were not allowed to work, go to school, leave home without a male chaperone, access healthcare delivered by men—even if they were dying—engage in politics, or even speak publicly. They were also subjected to public beatings and executions.

In November 2001, a U.S.-led military campaign overthrew the Taliban regime. Since that time, Afghan women and girls have made significant progress. Notably, they have been afforded more opportunities to attend school and participate in economic and political life. However, the Taliban has since waged an insurgency against the Afghan government, which has resulted in widespread displacement and destruction, including significant physical threats and restrictions for women.

The exclusion of women in the Afghan peace talks matters—not just for individual women and their families, but for the prospects for peace. Research examining every peace agreement since the Cold War suggests that women’s participation in peace negotiations makes the resulting agreement 64 percent less likely to fail and 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years.

Women in conflict-affected regions have also achieved success in moderating violent extremism, countering terrorism, resolving disputes through nonviolent mediation and negotiation, and stabilizing societies by enhancing the effectiveness of security services, peacekeeping efforts, institutions, and decision-making processes. Yet, globally, women remain under-represented in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post-conflict peace building efforts.

In 2000, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted the first-ever resolution on Women, Peace and Security, Security Council Resolution 1325. The adoption of Resolution 1325 marked the first time the UNSC addressed the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women. Resolution 1325 also made the participation of women in negotiations and peace processes an international security priority.

Acknowledging the importance of women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution, the Barack H. Obama Administration unveiled the United States’ first-ever National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, accompanied by Executive Order 13595. To further aforementioned efforts, the United States government enacted the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, which was signed into law by President Donald J. Trump.

The purpose of the bipartisan Act is to ensure that the United States promotes the “meaningful participation of women in mediation and negotiation processes seeking to prevent, mitigate, or resolve violent conflict.” This strategy has the potential to promote more inclusive and democratic societies, and is critical to the long-term stability of conflict-prone countries and regions. Particularly, Afghanistan.

The express language of the Women, Peace, and Security Act states that “the United States should be a global leader in promoting the meaningful participation of women in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, and post-conflict relief and recovery efforts.” Yet, when put to the test, the United States has failed to meet its own standards. In part, this is because President Trump has failed to submit a government-wide “Women, Peace, and Security Strategy,” which, per the Act, should have been submitted to Congress by October 2018.

As a strategic imperative, the United States should appoint more female officials to its State Department-led Afghanistan Reconciliation delegation, and it should urge Taliban officials to include Afghan women in future peace negotiations. Moreover, the United States should also implement safeguards to protect the rights and freedoms that Afghan women have gained over the past 17 years. Finally, if the United States is to advocate for more Afghan women at the table, they should lead by example by sending more women on the U.S. delegation.

The rights of women—which are human rights—will not be fully realized until the so-called laws and policies put in place to protect their interests and empower them, are actually implemented. The United States cannot afford to support a peace agreement that sacrifices the rights of Afghan women. If it does, the agreement should be left on the negotiating table next to the empty chair(s) where a woman should have been sitting.

About the author: LaTreshia A. Hamilton, JD is a Master of Global Affairs candidate at Rice University’s James A. Baker, III Institute for Public Policy and the School of Social Sciences in Houston, Texas.