Why Afghan women must negotiate with the Taliban

For a peace deal to stick in Afghanistan, women must be at the table, ensuring their rights are protected.

On her mobile phone, a woman records Taliban negotiators as they walk by after signing an agreement with the U.S. in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29.

Under a deal negotiated by the Trump administration, the Taliban and Afghan government are due to start direct peace talks March 10 in hopes of ending 18 years of war. “This is your moment,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Afghan people in announcing the deal Saturday.

Then with emphasis, he added, “We’re going to need every [Afghan] to join in.”

If the world has learned anything from wars of the past century, it is that peace deals must be inclusive to stick. They cannot be top-down agreements that falter for lack of buy-in. This means those in society who suffered the most during a conflict must be at the negotiating table. They must be given their due in justice, equality, and reconciliation. In Afghanistan, that means women.

Afghan women were highly suppressed under Taliban rule of the 1990s. This is still the case in areas now controlled by the Islamic radical group. Yet starting last year, as the United States pursued the talks in order to exit its longest war, women began to use hashtag campaigns, peace marches, and conferences to demand meaningful participation in any intra-Afghan talks.

Only Afghan women, sitting at a table across from the Taliban, could adequately protect the liberties, protections, and opportunities they have won since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Women negotiators could test the sincerity of the Taliban in its latest claims about allowing greater freedom for women. Or they could pin down details on women’s rights in a final agreement.

They might also enlighten the Taliban about the remarkable changes for female Afghans since 2001. Some 40% of girls now attend school. Nearly a third of parliament is women. Women are particularly active in a nationwide struggle against domestic violence.

In February, an Oscar was given for a documentary about Afghan girls learning to skateboard. Skateboards, said the film’s director, Carol Dysinger, teach girls to say, “I am here, I have something to say, and I’m going to take that ramp; don’t try to stop me.”

Up to now, President Ashraf Ghani has not committed to giving women a big role in the negotiations other than a token representation or as consultants beforehand. For its part, the U.S. plans to defend the rights of Afghan women, which would help stabilize Afghanistan and prevent it from becoming a source of terrorist attacks again.

Afghanistan ranks low in gender parity, but its women have learned their innate worth does not come from men or from the help of foreign powers. By bringing light to their rights, they are endeavoring to protect what they have won so far. The lasting promise of peace may well rest on how many women are at the table with the Taliban.

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