Notably absent from recent headlines about the potential withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is talk of the dangerous consequences such a decision could have for women and girls in the region—and the lack of women’s representation in the ongoing “peace talks” between the Trump administration and leaders of the Taliban.
But feminists on the ground in Afghanistan and their allies around the world are speaking out—and we should heed their warnings.
“One of the significant achievements of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has been the dramatic improvement in the lives of women and girls, who suffered terribly under the unchecked rule of the Taliban prior to 2001,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who authored the groundbreaking Women, Peace and Security Act that mandates women’s representation in peace negotiations and conflict resolution groups, wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a letter with Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“For this reason, we are concerned that the negotiations between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, and the possible withdrawal of U.S. troops to follow, may undo the considerable progress we have made on human rights, especially those of women and girls. We urge you to ensure our investment of time, resources and the lives of U.S. soldiers will not have gone to waste by ensuring that Afghan women are represented and issues central to their rights and needs are part of any negotiation going forward.”
The Senators demanded that the U.S. follow its own law and invite women to participate in the process. “Including women in peace negotiations is not merely a symbolic gesture,” the Senators wrote. “According to research by the United Nations, when women have a substantive role in peace negotiations the likelihood the agreement will last beyond fifteen years increases by as much as 35 percent.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s negotiation team includes female members, but the democratically-elected national government has yet to be granted a seat at the table in the talks. Calls for gender diversity at the peace-making table are also being made by women leaders in Afghanistan.
“We, Afghan women, welcome the any steps headed for bringing peace in Afghanistan,” the Afghan Women’s Network declared in a statement. “However, sustainable peace requires the equal participation of the Afghan people, both men and women.” The coalition of over 3,500 individual members and 125 women’s organizations from across Afghanistan demanded the “full, equal, and meaningful participation of women in the peace process.” They also outlined recommendations for their own government and the international community—including women’s active participation in peace talks, prioritizing the protection and expansion of women’s rights in any peace agreement and the implementation of Afghanistan’s own National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security.
“Women have knowledge, solutions and key suggestions,” the network urged. “Any formal and informal gatherings and initiatives that do not include Afghan women and war victims will not be legitimated by women.”
The main demand that the U.S. Envoy has reportedly made in discussions thus far is that the Taliban not harbor terrorists. Afghan Women’s leaders are urging instead against engaging in discussions at all with the Taliban, an insurgent militia that seeks to implement and maintain systems of gender apartheid through policies and violent practices that silence and endanger women and girls.
“During the Taliban rule, women and girls were prohibited from going to school, working outside the home or even leaving the house without a male guardian,” Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, explained to supporters in an email. “Now, Afghan women fear losing their hard-won rights in peace negotiations—as guarantees of human rights in general have not been made a prerequisite for any agreement.”
Smeal is calling on supporters to demand the inclusion of Afghan women in the peace process. “We cannot trade away the human rights of Afghan women and girls,” she declared, “for vague and unenforceable Taliban ‘guarantees’ not to shelter violent terrorists.”
The gains Afghan women and girls made in the last 17 years are incredible, but they remain fragile—and maintaining a supportive U.S. presence in the region can help sustain, expand and further their hard-won progress.
Since 2001, the Afghan government has established over 13,000 new schools—and women and girls now make up one-third of the teachers in elementary and secondary schools, over 60 percent of the graduates of Teacher Training Colleges, 35 percent of high school students and over 20 percent of college students. In October 2015, Kabul University, the largest and most prestigious Afghan public university, even announced the launch of a woman and gender studies department.
The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan, which was once the second highest in the world, has decreased from 1,340 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in 1990 to under 400 in 2015. Moreover, a report of the Council on Foreign Relations by Ms. contributor Gayle Tzemach Lemmon found that the number of health facilities capable of providing adequate reproductive care has nearly doubled—increasing from 1,214 to 2,047—and that the network of qualified female health professionals has expanded. Women in Afghanistan now have an average life expectancy of 62 years; in 2011, it was just 44.
“Shifting deep-seated gender norms as part of a national security strategy first requires acknowledging that they’re linked—that gender inequality isn’t something that can be tackled after security concerns are dealt with,” Elizabeth Weingarten, senior fellow at New America, wrote in Foreign Policy. “The two need to be approached in tandem.”
In other words: Women must be at the center of U.S. strategies abroad—and no decisions on Afghanistan should be made without them.