Why Are Women Missing From These Crucial Talks?

Photo: Massoud Hossaini/AP Photo.
Update: On Monday, talks aimed at kickstarting peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban after more than a decade of war officially began. The only problem: the Taliban is not attending.

Divided by infighting within different factions, representatives from the Taliban were not present at Monday's talks, the BBC reports. Instead, representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S., and China met in Islamabad, Pakistan to discuss a pathway to peace.

This article was originally published on
January 8, 2015.
Next week, major world powers are expected to meet in an effort to revive peace talks in Afghanistan. But there's something missing from the Afghan delegation: women.

Representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S., and China— and possibly some factions of the Taliban — are slated to meet in Islamabad as a first step toward reopening high-stakes peace talks aimed at ending the 14-year war. The talks stalled in July of last year, after it was revealed that an Afghan Taliban leader had, in fact, died two years ago.
Despite Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani's promises to include women in the negotiations, they've been notably absent from the table — both in July 2015 and now.

"I think it’s not too late for him to keep his promise, but the signs haven’t been great," said Heather Barr, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, which is calling for the inclusion of female negotiators. "This conflict, more than any other conflict, is largely about women's rights. The Taliban has an incredibly oppressive approach."

Now, 14 years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan with the aim of ousting the Taliban, the country's fragile democracy remains a work in progress. And one of the biggest areas where progress needs to be made is in improving women's rights. A 2011 Thompson Reuters Foundation poll of international gender experts ranked Afghanistan the world's most dangerous country for women. Child marriage and domestic violence are serious problems. Convictions for so-called "moral crimes," which cover everything from being a victim of rape to falling in love, can land women in jail for years.

If women's needs and women's understanding of what's needed to make peace are left out, it would be impossible to really structure a lasting peace. After all, women are half of the world.

Annie Bird, Human Rights Advocate
All that makes the stakes for women in the peace talks even higher.

"What Afghan women are most afraid of is that women's rights will be on the table. They don't have any reason to trust the Afghan government," Barr said. "If the door shuts and there's a delegation from the Taliban, and a delegation of men from the Afghan government, what you have is a discussion about women's rights between a group that loathes women's rights, and another that's lukewarm."

Unfortunately, the lack of female representation isn't unique to Afghanistan. According to a United Nations review of 31 major peace processes around the globe since 1992, women represented a strikingly low number of negotiators — only 9%. It took until 2013 for the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution urging "full involvement" of women in peace talks.

These anemic rates go against recommendations from prominent researchers. According to a study from The Institute for Inclusive Security, women are crucial to the peace process, thanks to their vested interest in equalizing power.

This conflict, more than any other conflict, is largely about women's rights. The Taliban has an incredibly oppressive approach.

Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch
"Women are clearly affected in different ways by war, and other social issues around violence, and have a very different experience of that than men do," said Annie Bird, director of the Rights and Ecology Program at the Center for Political Ecology. "That means that they have different priorities in both imagining and making real peace."

Bird played a role in Guatemala's 1996 peace talks, which included two women. Those talks were highlighted by the U.N. for their inclusion. For Bird, cutting out the female perspective, whether it be in Guatemala or in Afghanistan, is detrimental to overall peace.

"If women's needs and women's understanding of what's needed to make peace are left out, it would be impossible to really structure a lasting peace. After all, women are half of the world," said Bird.

In Afghanistan's case, women have been excluded repeatedly, and without consequence.

"It's disappointing how key donor countries, which have a lot of influence over Afghanistan, have not seen this as an issue," said Barr. "If it's not an important issue to the U.S. or the U.K., then why would it be important to the Afghan government?"

For his part, Ghani has said that he would allow women's involvement in peace talks, but at an unannounced later date he calls the "right time."

However, with increased fighting, and the drawdown of international military forces, women's rights activists argue that now is the time.

"You can’t have women show up at the end, for the celebratory ceremony," said Barr. "The moment when women's input is the most crucial is throughout the entire process."

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