At NATO summit on Afghanistan, few women's voices heard

Afghan women and international rights advocates are growing increasingly concerned that a decade-long focus on expanding Afghan women’s rights will go when US and NATO forces leave.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during their meeting at the NATO Summit in Chicago, Sunday.

With the US and NATO planning the departure of their forces from Afghanistan by December 2014, some Afghan women and international rights advocates are growing increasingly concerned that a decade-long focus on expanding Afghan women’s rights will go with them.

As NATO leaders – mostly men, it’s fair to say – assembled in Chicago to plan the transition to a fully Afghan-led security effort next year, another gathering – this one of Afghan and American women – focused on the need to protect Afghan women’s educational, social, and political gains over the last decade.

“We have to ensure that our commitment to Afghan women does not end as our troops come home,” said US Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois, at a conference Sunday that laid out an eight-point plan for safeguarding and strengthening Afghan women’s rights.

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Amnesty International, which sponsored Sunday’s conference, called it a “shadow summit” in part because women, and Afghan women in particular, are largely absent from the NATO gathering taking place at the same time.

The Afghan delegation to the NATO summit led by President Hamid Karzai originally included no women, according to Frank Januzzi, director of Amnesty International’s Washington office. But at least two women were added, including one female member of the Afghan Parliament, when prominent Afghan women protested the absence.

“We were told the Chicago [NATO] summit has nothing to do with us women,” said Mahbouba Seraj, an Afghan women’s and children’s advocate, describing the explanation the Afghan presidential palace originally offered when asked about the all-male Chicago delegation. But she said she and other members of the Afghan Women’s Network considered it crucial that “we bring the voices of the voiceless women of Afghanistan.”

The eight steps called for by Amnesty International and endorsed in an open letter sent to President Obama and Mr. Karzai include significant participation by women in peace talks with the Taliban, institutionalized guarantees of women’s rights in any reconciliation agreements with the Taliban, creation of a fund targeted at sustaining and enhancing women’s rights, and specific training of security forces to protect women against violence, including domestic violence.

Concerns about the status and future of Afghan women come after a decade of considerable progress, yet as threats to that progress intensify – sometimes in shocking fashion.

About 3 million Afghan girls are in school – more than one-third of the school population – a decade after Taliban rule that kept girls home. But at the same time, the Taliban continue to ban girls from school in the areas they control, and they burn schools for girls and threaten and kill girls’ teachers in disputed areas. Earlier this year insurgents sickened the girls at one school by poisoning the water supply.

Women won more seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections than the law mandated, and a few women are judges and prosecutors.

Earlier this year, at a meeting of the US-Afghan Women’s Council, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called protecting Afghan women’s rights a “red line” for the US. But she acknowledged that forces are arrayed to weaken the progress already made.

“There are always going to be those, not only in Afghanistan, who want to roll back progress for women and impose second-class citizenship on women,” she said. But she insisted the US “will not waver on this point,” adding that “any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all.”

Afghan women concur that warnings are multiplying of a backsliding on rights as the Western presence wanes. One example: a statement issued earlier this year by the country’s religious leaders, or Ulema Council, advocating segregation of the sexes in Afghan society, including in schools, a ban on women traveling unaccompanied by a male relative, and respect for polygamy. It was not refuted by Karzai.

“President Karzai is in a position where he has to appease the Taliban and also work with the international community,” said Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women.

“What we heard back from the palace was that this [Ulema statement] was only a consultation,” added Hasina Safi, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Education Center in Kabul. “There have been gains” for women, she added, but this example demonstrated how “they need to be more specific” and institutionalized.

Representative Schakowsky said such examples underscore exactly why women can’t simply be seen as the beneficiaries of rights granted by someone else, but must be a part of the discussions that deliberate on those rights – including at forums like the NATO Summit.

“It’s not just about women’s rights, it’s about women being part of the process that creates an enduring peace” in Afghanistan, she said. Citing a favorite saying, she added, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. So women need to be there.”

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