Solutions to Violent Conflict

Reconciliation and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan on November 29, 2010 at 10:43 am

Sarah Smiles Persinger

As public support for the Afghan war wanes, the concept of reconciliation with the Taliban and insurgent groups has gained currency and is now the declared policy of the United States and the Afghan government.

Reconciliation poses a quandary for Western policymakers, however, given the Taliban’s abusive stance toward women. Under Taliban rule, Afghan women and girls were deprived of education and the right to work and were forbidden to leave their homes without a male guardian.

EMPOWERMENT AND PEACE

Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the empowerment of Afghan women has in many ways been a quasi-policy goal of the military intervention. Western governments have promoted the empowerment of Afghan women as critical to the country’s economic and political progress.

The prospect of a peace deal has raised fears that the precarious progress achieved by women since 2001 will be undone if insurgent leaders gain political influence. It has also confounded anti-war advocates in the West, with some commentators suggesting a prolonged military intervention is necessary to safeguard women’s rights.

The prospect of a peace deal has raised fears that the progress achieved by women will be undone if insurgent leaders gain political influence.

The pressing question is: how can the U.S. and NATO governments pursue reconciliation while safeguarding human and women’s rights?

The recent Kroc Institute policy report sought to tackle this difficult question. Drawing on fieldwork  in Kabul, it gauges the opinions of Afghan women on the peace process and broadly surveys the social impacts of the war.

OPPORTUNITIES ERODING

Since 2001, Afghan women and girls have seized opportunities to go to school and university, to earn a living, and to participate in public life. More than 7 million Afghan children are now in school — 37 percent of them girls — compared with only 900,000 boys in 2002. Hundreds of midwives have been trained in a push to tackle maternal mortality. There is now a 25 percent reserved quota for women in the Afghan Parliament.

Yet as violence has risen in the country since 2005-2006, many of these gains have eroded. Hundreds of schools have been attacked and closed down, largely in the South and Southeast. Health clinics have been closed in unstable areas and electoral participation stifled.

Afghan women who exercise leadership abilities often are accused of being “un-Islamic” or “Western agents” and are subject to threats. The war has deepened the vulnerability of many Afghan women and girls, notably those that have been widowed, maimed, displaced, trafficked or forcibly married as a direct or indirect result of the conflict.

SUPPORT AND FEAR

Despite many misgivings, the majority of women interviewed support reconciliation, but they want assurances that peace will not come at their expense. The women who were interviewed recognize that their gains cannot be consolidated in a militarized environment. Yet they also fear a return to civil war if foreign troops are withdrawn precipitously, given the weakness of the Afghan security forces.

To prevent a security vacuum, the Kroc Institute report recommends the deployment of a United Nations interim security force to provide transitional security when foreign troops are withdrawn.

United States and NATO officials should use their leverage with the Afghan government to ensure that women are meaningfully represented in all peace negotiations.

There is a serious risk that aid will be scaled back as foreign troops withdraw, given that aid has followed the fighting. To avoid this, gradual demilitarization must be accompanied by significant, long-term investments by the donor community in development programs.

U.S. and NATO officials also should use their leverage with the Afghan government to ensure that women are meaningfully represented in all peace negotiations. Making funding for reintegration programs conditional on women’s representation is one way to do this. Vulnerable women who face continuing threats on their lives because of their perceived association with Western interests should also be given priority in asylum programs for Afghans.

IMPROVING WOMEN’S LIVES

A peace deal with fundamentalist insurgents is undoubtedly fraught with risk. But the assumption that the West can change misogynistic Afghan gender ideologies rapidly or through military force is fanciful.

The United States and NATO governments have significant influence, and this should be used to improve security, preserve women’s political rights, support Afghan women’s organizations, and sustain programs for public health, education, and economic opportunity that have improved women’s lives.

Sarah Smiles Persinger is a research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the co-author of the report, “Afghan Women Speak:  Enhancing Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan.”