Afghanistan Can't Afford A Future Without Women at the Table

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At last week’s London Conference on Afghanistan, the first in a series of summits led by Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Afghan women were left out in the cold. Only four men thought it important enough to attend the “Women’s Priorities” panel, an event assembled by Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS), and billed as the primary Afghan women’s event outside the summit itself.

Women’s champions, including Shinkai Karokhail, Afghan parliamentarian Homa Sabri, UNIFEM leader and civil society leader Orzala Asraf, held court in a posh room that was largely empty. While there was reportedly one Afghan woman representative at the formal summit itself, even most of those who attended the women’s event were late.

If Afghanistan is to successfully bring all Afghan women up, not just the few urban elite, the international community and the Afghan government will have to do more to implement the specific proposals of women leaders for mainstreaming equality. This is not simply a dream of women there.

According to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, such a move is also a vital necessity for the success of national health, education, civil society, peace-building and every other sector in society that affects men and families, as much as it does women.

Optimists, including NATO leaders, argue that the situation under the Karzai administration is a huge step forward from what it was like during the Taliban period, considering the recent dramatic increase in women’s leadership in such areas as parliament, business and education. But despite those successes, skeptics suggest that the Karzai administration is still a government that values the participation of pathologically violent, potentially psychotic militia leaders, rather than that of brilliant professional women.

Anti-war activists, including the well-known political actor, Malalai Joya, have unleashed public fury over continuing rights violations from rape to human trafficking, both of which persist even in areas that are loyal to central rule of law. In some cases, activists have been disappointed enough to call for the immediate withdrawal of NATO, as well as funding the Karzai regime, believing that a Taliban government would not be that much worse.

Afghan women leaders, including those at the event, called for allies to support the broad NATO strategy and support for the Karzai regime as a less bad option. Despite the Karzai regime’s weaknesses and abuses, these leaders remind people of the dark ages of the Taliban regime, from 1992 to 2001.

During that period, Taliban leaders forbade women and girls from all work, education and public participation, except for the most vital medical duties. Incidence of maternal and child mortality from complications and malnutrition sky-rocketed.

What Afghan women see happening today is certainly a stunted political movement through which a small urban elite soars ahead. Few women enter senior government positions, and the vast majority continues to suffer an epic lack of opportunity. But even this is an incredible improvement over the Taliban period.

Women leaders have also called for some very tangible pathways toward reform, peace building and the mainstreaming of women’s representation within the current government. These pathways have been crafted carefully to fit both liberal democracy and Islamic law.

First, Afghan women leaders propose mainstreaming women’s participation in government negotiations on peace and reconstruction, according to UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Many leaders are still shocked that women were left out of the London Summit.

Second, Afghan women leaders propose prioritizing transitional justice. Specifically, this is not only to ensure that the leaders in the Afghan government are upholders of justice, but also to ensure that the justice system includes gender specialists who will be involved in cases as wide-ranging as female vagrancy, widow compensation, job discrimination, medical malpractice, domestic violence, forced marriage, rape, corruption and war crimes. If all sectors are to improve, they say, justice must come quickly because this is where abuses and complaints about the lack of women’s rights will be directly addressed.

Finally, traditional tribal leadership, which has long been in the hands of men, represents the ultimate challenge for women’s rights, as it does in many other countries across the region.

Afghan women leaders, however, have proposed a few tangible first steps based on successes in other Islamic countries. As civil society experts like Nader Nadery pointed out at conference events in London, the traditional system is changing rapidly. While strict hard-line councils are becoming fewer, youth are rising with new views on how the councils should work.

And according to parliamentarian Karokhail, even the most chauvinist decision-makers in rural areas have an automatic respect for title-holders. Karokhail suggests that women of some standing should be invited to traditional hearings. More and more councils are willing to welcome a woman who is a leader of say, an international agency, or the holder of a government title.

If Afghanistan and its donors do not take women’s mainstreaming seriously, the damage will reflect across sectors and markets, perhaps the most painful of which will be in the continuation of severe maternal and child mortality and morbidity across the region.

Through Afghanistan’s three decades of war, there has emerged a core collection of women leaders and male partners with proposals for the improvement of society carefully designed to fit both democratic ideals and Islamic law.

In the great rush to find a solution to the war, those directly involved in talks seem to have taken the support of women for granted. While Karzai and NATO assume women’s rights advocates are safely in their pocket, they will do serious damage to their own causes by leaving women out of the process. An Afghanistan without the participation of women in all sectors, regardless of liberal or radical leadership, would be, as it was in the late 1990’s, a country without heart, health or reason.

Daniel J Gerstle is Editor of HELO Magazine and a consultant on humanitarian aid and human rights based in New York.


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