Part of the rationale for military intervention in Afghanistan was the deplorable state of women’s rights, and the need to free women from the gender apartheid practised by the Taliban. This was a country where women could not have direct contact with men after the age of eight, could not go to school or work outside the home, visit public baths to stay clean, wear nail polish, high heels or be seen in public without a burqa, or a male relative.
As the 10th anniversary of the military invasion approaches on Oct. 7, the hard-won gains that women have made over the past decade must be safeguarded. They cannot be sacrificed for the larger goal of ending Afghanistan’s protracted conflict. “We are a voice that must be heard,” said Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan academic and co-author of a report released by Oxfam aid agency that argues women’s rights should not be lost in a “quick fix” bargain for peace.
Today, about 2.7 million girls attend school in Afghanistan. Women’s rights have been enshrined in the constitution, and a quota system guarantees 68 female MPs in government (about one third).
However, a discriminatory culture persists, and harmful practises still go on, including child marriages and honour killings. The Taliban targets female police officers and teachers, resisting a more equal role for women in government and society.
That makes it all the more important for the United Nations and the international community to ensure that women are included in peace talks between the government and the Taliban. There are only nine women on the country’s 70-member High Peace Council, which was created to try to negotiate an end to the conflict, in advance of the 2014 withdrawal of international military forces (Canada’s military mission ended this summer, but 900 military and police trainers remain).
Women should be better represented at the table. The Oxfam report says Afghan women are counting on the international community to support them. It calls for bench marks, to monitor the presence of girls in school and in political life, and for funding for services that support women, including education, health and justice. Allowing half the country’s population to work has the added benefit of contributing to Afghanistan’s economy.
There will be a temptation to put women’s issues on hold in pursuit of a reconciliation. But peace at any cost won’t last, and sacrificing fundamental human rights for women should not be on the table. The gains that women have made must be protected.