Afghan women are leaders. They are central to building strong Afghan institutions and legal frameworks and creating opportunity for all Afghans. The current U.S. peace envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, would be well served to call on them, and their expertise, as he seeks an elusive peace in Afghanistan.
As part of any dialogue and debate about the future of Afghanistan, it is critical that the Afghan government, and Afghan citizens, be genuinely engaged in the process. This is not a process that should be reserved for the United States, some Afghan politicians, and the Taliban.
Broadly speaking, engaging Afghans means ensuring that there is genuine consultation with those who comprise today’s Afghanistan: men and women, young and old, people from every ethnic group and sector of society. Afghan power brokers have a role to play but they aren’t the only voice that must be heard. The Taliban do not represent the majority of Afghans, and their efforts to be seen as modern, and moderate, are questionable. For example, reports are that in districts controlled by the Taliban today, girls’ secondary schools are not operating and women cannot go to markets on their own.
Afghan women have made tremendous strides based on international investments and their own tenacity and agency. They are not victims, but leaders and change makers. They have been at the forefront of building a strong economy and a broad-based education system, and promoting the leadership of women across sectors.
It is critical that Afghan women are fully engaged and that their experience, talent, and expertise is brought to bear on all parts of the Afghan peace processes. To date, Afghan women have been generally excluded from the current talks. In a hopeful sign, earlier this week in Kabul, Khalilzad met with representatives of the Afghan Women’s Network, a coalition of 125 women’s rights organizations. At that meeting, he said that “women must be at the table during all negotiations about peace and Afghanistan’s future.” This is in line with the mandate of the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 which recognizes, as a matter of U.S.policy, the importance of women’s roles in peace negotiations and conflict resolution.
Research demonstrates that when women are engaged in peace talks, a peace agreement is 64 percent less likely to fail. The meaningful inclusion of women in peace processes increases by 35 percent the probability of an agreement lasting at least 15 years. This is in contrast to the overall durability of agreements that end conflict, with peace lasting only five years on average once conflict ends.
Engaging women in the peace process is about more than institutionalizing the tremendous progress Afghan women and girls have made. Although, the legal status of women and statistics are impressive. Increased access to education for girls is one of the most significant achievements since the defeat of the Taliban. Fifteen years ago, fewer than 5,000 girls were enrolled in primary school. Today, estimates are that three million girls are in primary school. Secondary schools have graduated at least 120,000 girls, and at least 15,000 have completed college. 36 percent of teachers are women. 6,000 women are judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers, and soldiers. In government, as of early 2019, women hold 69 of 249 seats in parliament. Of 25 government ministers, four are women. Twelve of the 63 members of the Afghan High Peace Council are women. About 3,000 businesses in the country are owned and operated by women entrepreneurs.
Engaging women in the peace process is about tapping the expertise and legitimacy of Afghan women. These women have expertise in creating jobs, building a strong legal framework, and engaging large groups of Afghans in dialogue. For example, the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry brings together women business owners from different sectors to advocate for legal reforms that open economic opportunities. Women for Afghan Women runs shelters for those who have been subject to gender-based violence and helps them navigate the legal system.
These women, and many more like them, have been involved in building their communities for years. They understand the situation on the ground in a way that is critical to a peace agreement that protects the rights of women and girls, and also reintegrates Taliban fighters and their sympathizers into the fabric of Afghan society
A stable, prosperous and secure Afghanistan is critical for everyone. Afghan women must speak for themselves, and for their fellow citizens, as part of the current dialogues.
Afghanistan has two elections scheduled in the next six months: Parliamentary and district council elections on October 20, 2018 and the Presidential election on April 20, 2019. These elections, the first in almost five years, will be watched closely by Afghans and the international community. Women must have every opportunity to participate fully in every phase of the electoral process: as candidates, election administrators, observers, and voters.
In order to ensure high levels of participation and engagement, Afghan women must be at the table as election planning occurs. The Afghan government, international donors, and Afghan civil society must ensure that they weave women’s perspectives and input into the strategies and tactics they are using to drive maximum participation. Electoral and governmental authorities must take concrete steps to ensure that women and men are equal participants in the Afghan political process, and must address electoral-related violence. This is essential to the credibility and transparency of the electoral process and is especially important as the Taliban is asserting itself across the country and apparently engaged in negotiations with U.S. officials.
Women in Afghanistan have made substantial progress since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but that progress is tenuous. Women have demonstrated their commitment to public life: in the 2014 presidential run-off, 2.4 million Afghan women voted (38 percent of all voters), the highest number in Afghanistan’s history. According to the Asia Foundation, over 78,000 women have been appointed to government positions since 2001. Currently, women hold twenty-eight percent of Parliamentary seats, several cabinet positions, and numerous judicial positions. However, Afghanistan remains an insecure and dangerous environment, which is difficult for all Afghans, but particularly for women and girls.
Across the globe, violence against women in the electoral process is a threat to electoral integrity. It affects women’s ability and interest in participation at every level of the political process. Women can be targeted because of their political affiliations, or because they are active in politics and public life, or exercising their right to vote, still often seen as places for men.
In past Afghan elections, there have been substantial reports of violence, and threats of violence, targeted at women voters and candidates. There have been continual challenges finding enough women willing to work at polling stations, as well as a lack of women “body searchers,” to ensure that individuals entering women’s polling places are indeed women and not armed. There have been numerous efforts to address these issues: from electoral hotlines to extra security for women candidates to decreased fees for women seeking to run. But, these issues remain prevalent as Afghanistan enters this upcoming set of elections.
What can be done?: The Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) must focus on recruiting women for positions throughout the electoral administration system — from headquarters to polling centers and local electoral bodies — and for both permanent and temporary positions. At the same time, registration and polling centers must be accessible, safe and secure to ensure the full participation of women voters. Voter registration processes must reach women throughout the country and ensure that the act of registering or voting does not put them in harm’s way. The IEC and other relevant government entities must ensure there is sufficient security staff at women’s polling centers. Women candidates, throughout the country, must feel safe as they campaign. Finally, international and domestic electoral observation missions deployed across Afghanistan must be gender-balanced to ensure that they are able to fully report on the elections and reflect the different experiences of men and women in the process. Finally, there must also be a way to capture the lessons learned from the October elections and use them in the lead-up to those in April.
As internet access and the use of social media (mostly Facebook) increases in Afghanistan, there must be special attention paid to how social media is being used to shame and threaten women who are activists and candidates, and to share false information. The Afghan government and the international community must take steps to address election-related violence which deters women from voting, working at polling stations, campaigning for office, and serving as elected officials.
Protecting the hard-won gains that women have made since 2001 is critical. This is also an opportunity to reaffirm support for women’s participation and take concrete steps to increase women’s ability to fully participate in these elections. The Afghan government, the international community, Afghan civil society, and Afghan citizens all have a role to play.
- Diversity and Inclusion
- Economic Empowerment
- Empowering Girls
- Foreign Policy
- Gender Equality
- Open Government
- Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
- Sustainable Development Goals