Opinion: For the women of Afghanistan, peace with the Taliban may not end the war

The stage during talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents on Sept. 12 in Doha, Qatar. Photo by: Ibraheem al Omari / Reuters

On Aug. 14, while traveling back to Kabul from a meeting in Afghanistan’s northern Parwan province, Fawzia Koofi was the target of an assassination attempt. Though she was not seriously wounded and though the Taliban denied responsibility, the attack demonstrated what is at stake for Afghanistan’s women as peace negotiations get underway in Doha, Qatar.

Koofi is one of four women currently taking part in those negotiations with the Taliban, and any effort to silence her could reasonably be viewed as an effort to silence women altogether. The attack simply underscores the greatest fear many women in Afghanistan express when they discuss the equally exciting and terrifying peace process.

They are excited because peace means the end to four decades of conflict and violence. They are terrified because the cost of peace with the Taliban may be the swift erosion of many of the gains women have made in Afghan society in the last two decades.

The country has changed in many positive ways. Where once women were not permitted to work outside the home, today it is not only permitted but is supported by most women and men in the country. The latest edition of The Asia Foundation’s annual Survey of the Afghan People, released late last year, found that 76% of respondents favored women working outside the home. Indeed, per the survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that a politician who accepted a peace agreement that diminished the rights of women would not receive their vote.

Where are the women in the Afghan peace talks?

While peace negotiations in Afghanistan have entered a new phase, meaningful participation of women has not been guaranteed. That could prove dangerous for the long-term success of any deal, say female political leaders.

Support is also significant for women receiving an education and participating in politics. And while most Afghan men still say they would prefer a government in which they are represented by other men, the percentage of those who say they are fine either way is at 33%, which is a crucial opinion tipping point.

Even the Taliban have recognized that it is, at least, in their political interest to make approving signals about the rights of women. Nonetheless, many of the women I speak to are not prepared to accept those approving sounds as a sign of a real change in Taliban attitude.

The day after Koofi was attacked, women from 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces gathered in their respective regions as part of the Provincial Women’s Network for a remarkable national press event, which was co-sponsored by the Women’s Regional Network. Although the participants disagreed on much, they set differences aside and pointed to a number of shared values that they wanted to see included as part of the peace process.

Afghan women demanded an immediate cease-fire. They demanded independent monitoring to help enforce that cease-fire. They demanded that all members of Afghan civil society unify behind the peace process. And they demanded not one, not a handful, but a meaningful number of seats at the negotiating table for women.

To ensure that women’s rights are central to the dialogue, they insisted that women constitute at least 30% of the negotiating team. They believe 30% would provide a critical mass guaranteeing that women’s voices are heard and that any peace agreement includes clear, verifiable assurances that women will not only maintain the gains they have enjoyed in these last several years but will achieve further gains through an inclusive, durable peace.

But at the final count, there are 17 men and four women on the team, meaning 19% female representation — definitely not 30%.

Opinion: Local voices key in Afghanistan Peace Process

International peacebuilders are increasingly recognizing and accepting the importance of the local’s role in peacebuilding and peacemaking. Malalai Habibi of the University of Notre Dame discusses the vital role that women play in this process and how they could be better included.

As Aghan Ambassador to the U.S. Roya Rahmani stated in a virtual meeting I attended in August, “the future of women and of the nation are intertwined.” While no one is legitimately afraid that the Afghan government will trade away women’s rights in exchange for some other concession from the Taliban, many Afghan women rightfully fear that indifference to their needs and concerns may result in the war taking a different form for women.

They hope that the violence may end, but they fear their voices will remain unheard or underrepresented. For them, peace without justice is not a real or lasting peace for Afghanistan.

Regardless of how many seats at the table they were ultimately granted, the women of Afghanistan must be able to win this war — and the international community must wage it alongside them until the day that they do.

Last month, the Provincial Women’s Networks and Women in Peace Coalition released a joint statement, “Afghan Women Demand a Just and Accountable Peace,” which requests that international allies continue using their support and influence to hold the Afghan government, security forces, and media accountable for sustainable progress toward peace and to protect the human rights of all Afghan people, particularly women, girls, and other marginalized populations in the country.

The international community must raise voices to advocate for substantive involvement in the peace process. Use your personal power to elevate global conversations. Engage neighbors and representatives. Act today to support Afghan women.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Susanne E. Jalbert

    Susanne E. Jalbert, Ph.D., is a gender equity advocate, economic development activist, and women’s rights political strategist. Jalbert has considerable experience in Afghanistan, and currently serves as chief of party on the USAID Promote: Women in Government project.