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Women in War-Ravaged Afghanistan Fight Back for Their Rights

Zarqa Yaftali is a women’s rights advocate from Afghanistan and Executive Director of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation. She represented the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security at the recent UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security.

A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. Credit: UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov 5 2020 (IPS) - Bullets, bombs, tyranny and torture. Children crying for food, civilians struggling to survive, women unable to walk out of their homes freely. When we are not under siege from bombs and landmines, ordinary Afghans suffer from hunger, natural hazards and poverty.

Every day is a war and every day people lose their lives. This is Afghanistan today – and a reality too many around the world can relate to.

The conflict in Afghanistan has taken a particular toll on women and girls. Over half the population lives below the poverty line and this has hit women the hardest. 70% of Afghan women are illiterate, 87% of Afghan women have already experienced at least one form of gender-based violence, 35% of girls are forced to marry before the age of 18, and women and girls are less likely to have access to quality health services and treatment, particularly in rural areas.

Women and children make up the majority of four million internally displaced people. All these issues have only worsened with the spread of COVID-19.

In addition, our civil society is threatened, harassed and attacked and no measures exist for their protection. In mid-September, the US Embassy in Kabul reported an increased risk for women, including human rights activists and women in government.

Despite these challenges, my people have also worked tirelessly to change this country for the better. Today, many of our girls can go to school without fear. We have heroes like Shamsia, the daughter of a coal miner, who came first in Afghanistan’s national university entrance exam.

We have a free media and a constitution that protects the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities. Women are no longer publicly shot or stoned in Kabul stadiums, imprisoned in their homes or forced to wear burqas or shoes that make no noise, like they were 20 years ago.

Today, Afghan women are gaining respect and recognition as they begin to flourish in all walks of life, as doctors, taxi drivers and film-makers. Women in Afghanistan are also ministers, women who, under the Taliban regime, were deprived of the most basic rights to education, employment and freedom of movement. Today, they are in a position to influence policy and shape the future of our nation.

Much of this change is only due to the role women played in advocating for their rights over the past two decades. Women’s increasing participation in public and political life has changed harmful social norms and expectations around our role in Afghanistan. Afghan society today is ready to see women lead this country into the future.

Despite the great strides we have made, we know our hard-won gains can be snatched away without warning. The bitter memories of Taliban rule haunt us daily. These experiences are still a reality for many women and girls living in areas controlled by the Taliban, where few girls are allowed to attend school past puberty, access to information is limited and freedom of expression is severely curtailed.

After extensive delays to the Intra-Afghan talks, the official start in September is indeed a milestone. The presence of four women on the government’s negotiation team is a positive development, but it is not enough. Afghanistan’s track record for including women is dismal — between 2005 and 2020, women were excluded from almost 80% of peace process meetings and negotiations.

Given the deep-rooted resistance by the Taliban to women’s formal inclusion in past processes, and the recent attack targeting one of the women on the government’s negotiating team, we are deeply concerned that women’s rights will be used as a bargaining chip between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan. This would undermine our fundamental rights and ignore our important contributions to the future of this country.

Peace cannot come at the cost of women’s rights. All we have achieved hangs in the balance in the current negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

We are urging the international community, including global and regional institutions, UN Member States and donor countries, to exercise your responsibility to ensure that none of the parties involved, including the Taliban, restrict women’s human rights, civil liberties or citizenship in any way.

Political pressure from the international community can be effectively used to promote the protection of women’s rights and our formal and direct participation in the talks and the subsequent state-building processes. The widespread and meaningful participation of women in the peace process is essential both for peace and for the fate of Afghan women.

At the UN Security Council this week, I, on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security made specific demands – for leaders to use their influence in this key decision-making space to emphasize and complement the work women leaders are doing on the frontlines around the globe.

We asked them to demand an immediate ceasefire, insist on women’s rights and participation as part of inclusive peace talks, ensure the safety of women’s rights defenders – and more.

20 years of commitments and resolutions by the Security Council have not substantially changed the reality for women in Afghanistan – or in Yemen, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan — in fact, in every country on the Security Council’s agenda.

Even the modest gains over the last 20 years are under attack. We are watching as women’s rights, health, equality and inclusion are being dangerously undermined. We must hold the line – and our leaders accountable to do the same.

Just last week, civil society and defenders of women’s rights were able to avert an unnecessary and potentially dangerous Security Council resolution led by Russia. Women leaders and our allies watch closely how leaders act in these moments to see what support we can expect as we face challenges to equality and inclusion in our own countries.

We were once again forced to hope that those in positions of power will wield it for good and demonstrate they are in lock step with the women who have earned the power to lead and push for peace in their communities. Our rights shouldn’t still be up for debate, but we were relieved to see our community and the majority of Member States on the Security Council hold the line against the erosion of women’s rights, inclusion and equality.

Although women have long suffered from war, violence, and exclusion, we are not victims — we have fought back for decades for our rights, and we will not sit by and watch our achievements be thrown away. It is equally the responsibility of the international community to stand with the women of Afghanistan and around the world as we demand our seat at the table, and a future that is safe, equal, and just.


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