No women, no peace, no democracy

By Swarna Rajagopalan| Published: 21st June 2019 04:00 AM

Recently, more than 75 members of the US Congress signed a letter urging the US administration to keep its statutory commitment to promote women’s participation in peace processes by insisting on the inclusion of Afghan women in the talks with the Taliban. This followed an intensive advocacy campaign by Afghan women and their supporters in the US to rally such support.

As I have shared my excitement about the successful advocacy efforts in the US on the issue of Afghan women’s participation, I have had people look back at me blankly. Afghanistan? War? Taliban? Women, what women?

For Afghan women, who have protested and lobbied energetically on the ground to defend their rights and shared their views online using hashtags like #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack and #MyRedLine, this feels like a life and death struggle. Women’s advocacy for participation within their country is natural and their efforts in Washington DC make sense given American involvement in Afghan affairs. But in the rest of South Asia, there appears no ripple. The lack of interest and attention is stunning and preposterous.

Why do we not care that Afghan women are not included in decision-making about their rights? Perhaps it is because we do not care about the exclusion of women in our own countries? Perhaps it is because Afghanistan is so far away? Perhaps it is because we find it natural for men to be the primary participants in decisions about war and peace? Perhaps it is because we do not know enough? Perhaps we are too preoccupied with our daily struggle to find water or to find work? Why do I care about Afghan women participating in the peace talks? Why should you care?

My concern comes from reading about the challenges Afghan women have faced, their indomitable courage and creative resilience. In 2001, the plight of women under the Taliban regime was proffered as one justification for US military action. Stories had already been circulating about how women and girls could not go to school or work, and how arbitrary justice had become. Nevertheless, when the Taliban fell, we got to learn about countless instances of women’s creative and courageous push-back—with underground schools and home ateliers for weaving and embroidery, for instance—and women stepped back into the public sphere as if they had never left. They were now serving as lawyers and judges, as doctors and nurses, as politicians, as social workers, as cops and in the vanguard for peace and social change.

In a bid to withdraw from Afghanistan, the US has opened talks with the Taliban. While women believe negotiation is the way ahead, they rightly reject as futile a negotiation without women at the table and without the elected government of Afghanistan. The Taliban states it will not roll back women’s rights but if women cannot sit at the table and win those guarantees and safeguards for themselves, how can they believe this?

My engagement comes from the privilege of working closely with Afghan feminist peace-builders over several years and knowing that a peace process that ignores their expertise will flounder. Afghan women have used every small opening and opportunity to speak for their rights and for peace. They are not helpless, withering, witless victims to be rescued when outsiders choose. They are experts on their own experience and needs and on the politics of their country.

History shows that peace processes that include women and women’s concerns survive longer. An Afghan peace brokered without Afghan women’s expert participation will be based on an incomplete understanding of the experience of war and the needs of peace-time reconstruction. It will not hold.

The Afghan peace process involves two countries that created National Action Plans committed to implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which mandates women’s participation in conflict resolution and peace-building. Despite this, if women are excluded from the peace process and if the resultant agreements roll back hard-won human rights gains, we should be concerned. If official compliance with this norm does not guarantee the participation of women, what can women in India (which considers it irrelevant) expect?

Resolution 1325 mandates women’s participation and also prevention of and protection from sexual and gender-based violence, ending impunity; and gender-sensitive relief and reconstruction. After communal riots; insurgency and counter-insurgency operations; inter-caste violence; displacement and disasters, the existence of this globally agreed mandate will not protect women in India. Women’s rights will continue to be in abeyance during complex emergencies. The exclusion of Afghan women, despite national and international commitments to inclusion, bodes ill for women’s rights everywhere.

Kabul, Kandahar and Herat are far from Chennai, Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar, but our lives are connected. We must learn from Afghan women’s struggles that our own rights are never fully secure. We must be ever-vigilant to keep them. Supporting their right to write the future of Afghanistan sends a message to our government that we wish to be included in any peace initiatives in our own ‘disturbed areas.’ There can be neither peace nor democratic politics without women. Our civil and political rights are non-negotiable; that is why we must stand with those who insist #Afghan-WomenWillNotGoBack.

Swarna Rajagopalan
Political scientist and a member of the Women’s Regional Network

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