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15 June 2010

Women’s involvement in the peace process in Afghanistan

Women’s organisations fear backlash in achievements for women’s rights

It is morning and one of Medica Afghanistan’s young advocacy staff, Najiba Haidary, is preparing for a presentation about Medica Afghanistan’s work to a group of civil society organisations at a day-long meeting on strategies for implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in Kabul. One of the first things she has to do is to find out the exact location of the meeting. The task is more difficult than one might assume. War-torn Kabul remains a city without street names and house numbers. As different armed groups fought for control of the capital city during the years of civil war, houses, streets and entire neighbourhoods were shelled and bombed and disappeared overnight. Subsequent growth and rebuilding was haphazard without the benefit of any city planning. Since 2001, many organisations and houses see the anonymity as a tool for their security. If they cannot be distinguished by a house number or a distinguishing feature, they cannot be singled out for attacks by the rampant criminality or the armed anti-government groups. Medica Afghanistan’s own office in Kabul is behind a bland façade with no signboard that identifies it. Working in the sensitive area of providing support to women brutalized by the violence of the protracted conflict the organisation itself is more vulnerable than most.

It was 2002 when medica mondiale, a German women’s rights organisation, began its work in Afghanistan providing psychosocial, medical and legal support to women as well as launching an advocacy programme to raise awareness about their situation and their rights. Some sections of conservative society view these aims as being contrary to the customs and traditions of Afghanistan, increasing the risks of violence to those working with the organisation. In 2008 medica mondiale was even forced to close down its office in Kandahar as the escalating conflict made it difficult to carry on in the volatile province though it continues to expand on its work through offices in Kabul, Herat and Mazar e Sharif. In 2010 medica mondiale Afghanistan became an independent Afghan NGO, which is now called Medica Afghanistan and which continues to be supported by medica mondiale.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equality and legal commitments to the protection of women, there are growing fears of a roll-back of the small gains made by Afghan women since 2001. Attacks on women’s participation in public spaces have increased amidst a growing culture of intolerance for the role and space for women outside the household, while the perpetrators enjoy impunity. Civil society activists fear that the current process of political reconciliation with members of the armed insurgency who hold views of similar or greater intolerance will result in further restrictions on their freedoms and decrease the minimum protections available to them under the law. To prevent this from happening a large number of women groups have come together along with the Afghan Women’s Network (an umbrella organisation for women groups) as well as Medica Afghanistan to coordinate action to protect their rights. To sharpen their focus and ensure concrete action, a group of ten women’s organisations have formed a Peace-building network. This network is part of a greater advocacy project called “Political Participation of Women and Girls in Afghanistan, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo)”, which is largely funded by the European Commission. The networks in all countries – including in Afghanistan – is focusing on the implementation of UNSCR 1325 and is trying to strengthen women’s role in security and peace policies. This resolution calls for participation of women in peace processes and protection of women and girls from sexualized and gender based violence. The network hence focuses on advocacy and women’s political participation and use UNSCR 1325 – which is binding for all UN member states – as an advocacy tool. It enables the women to coordinate their action as well as it provides them with a template to which they can hold the Afghan government and the international community accountable.

In the meetings to discuss strategies for implementation of UNSCR 1325, Haidary walks the tightrope of women’s rights in Afghanistan skilfully. Addressing a gathering of a large number of civil society organisations mainly represented in the meeting by men, she provides information on the specific programmes of Medica Afghanistan. For the audience, this is useful. Rather than rhetoric on the general concept of women’s rights, it provides very detailed and specific programmatic knowledge that they can evaluate and relate to. Soon Haidary is inundated with questions – mainly from the men – that show they are curious and also keen to have their constituencies benefit from Medica Afghanistan’s expertise. “How can we get you to start a program in our area?” asks one, while another assures that his organisation will guarantee the security if Medica Afghanistan chooses to come to his region. Another wants advice on the tactical issue of challenging conservative attitudes without offending popular concepts of Islamic jurisprudence. Haidary is ready for the queries. She explains the possibilities and limitations of the organisation as well as how Medica Afghanistan is using religious Islamic texts and Islamic scholars in support of its programmes for promoting the rights of women. The tact is necessary. In Afghanistan, cultural prejudices and practices are often confused with religious edicts, a misconception encouraged by conservative opinion-makers who have been growing in strength.

Palwasha Hassan is one of the women’s rights activists who are struggling with those influences in society that are calling for greater restrictions on women’s space in the public domain. Though announced as a nominee for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs by President Hamid Karzai, she was unable to secure the support of the country’s parliament for her position, with influential and very conservative figures questioning her activism. Amongst the activities the MPs found objectionable was her work in setting up shelters for women who have faced domestic violence or whose lives are at risk. Now she and other activists are part of the Peace-building network that is converging on the issue of implementation of UNSCR 1325. They try to use the resolution in order to participate in the process of a political reconciliation. The task is however daunting as political reconciliation with armed groups such as the Taliban, which are known to be intolerant of women’s rights, is taking place in a climate of several clear reversals for rule of law in general and women’s rights in particular. Nevertheless, the network has certainly been able to enhance the advocacy work of the participating NGOs and has enabled them to link in their work the issues of violence against women, participation and peace building. Despite earlier support for a 2005 Transitional Justice Action Plan that included a commitment for justice and prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes including sexual and gender based violence against women, the international community and the Afghan government have backed off from its implementation. Moreover, the Afghan government’s controversial amnesty law that makes no exceptions for war crimes has been passed with no significant protest from the donor community. Other roll-backs have followed.

In 2009 the Afghan government adopted a controversial Shia Personal Statute Law for the country’s Shia, which is a synonym for the Shiite, minority. In the trade-off between the votes of the conservative Shiite and the rights of women – the latter seem not to count very much to the Afghan government. Though some of the most objectionable clauses of the initial draft of the law, such as the requirement for women to take permission to leave the house and to make themselves sexually available on the demand of their husbands were modified under pressure from women groups, the law still contains discriminatory provisions and spreads a symbolic political message against women’s rights. This year the government introduced new regulations for control of women’s shelters. The initial draft included provisions that would have given family members the right to claim custody of the women in the shelters, even if the woman had been seeking sanctuary from a violent domestic situation. Currently the rules have been modified to include the need to obtain the woman’s consent, but whether a vulnerable woman without support can exercise this right remains to be seen.

Efforts to get more women into political decision-making positions have made little progress as have efforts to ensure the government meets its commitments to ensure at least 30% representation of women in government offices.

Girl’s schools have been disproportionately targeted by insurgent groups. Even though the Taliban themselves have not officially repeated their earlier ban on schooling for girls, the women activists in Afghanistan fear that a reinforcement of the Taliban movement might well lead to a further rise of attacks on girl’s schools and a general repression against parents or teachers that support the right of education for girls. In areas where conservative opinion has already gained ground, Taliban-like edicts are yet in place. In Herat, even though not considered to be a Taliban stronghold, the local Ulema council (council of religious scholars) issued an edict mandating the need for women to be accompanied by a close male relative (father, brother or son) when travelling. Further on, public opinion surveys have shown decreasing support for women’s participation in public office.

In this general atmosphere that tends to exclude women out of the public sphere, Hassan appeared for her unsuccessful nomination hearing before the parliament. There she was asked whether she had taken any steps to curb women –rather than to empower them – as women were seen as enjoying too much freedom. Hassan hence seems rightly convinced that the rhetorical guarantees on the safeguarding of the rights of women under the Afghan Constitution remain very much rhetorical indeed.

The government has set up a formal body, the High Peace Council (HPC), which is officially charged with the task of opening negotiations with the armed insurgent groups and providing suggestions for the framework of a negotiated settlement. After much lobbying from the international community and the Afghan civil society, nine women were included as members in the 70-member body. “We see a level of acceptance of involving women” says Hassan, but points out that there is much more to be done. “We are still not happy with the selection process”, as a lot of former warlords are represented in the Council. Those men formerly benefiting from the conflict tend to have rather little interest in acknowledging the importance of women’s rights for peace or of letting the female members of the council have their fair stake in the decision-making process.

“Some women are there but at a superficial level” says Rasuli, drawing a parallel with the presence of women in parliament, who tend to get ignored. Selay Ghaffar of the NGO HAWCA (Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan), points out that most of the deliberations on reconciliation have been taking place, not in the formal meetings of the HPC but behind closed doors. Though women have been invited to engage with the peace process, there is scant information about the meetings. Women representatives of the meetings have signed onto confidentiality clauses. A western diplomat with knowledge about the workings of the HPC points out that female members have even been segregated in separate hotels during some of the international visits made by the HPC.Women activists have cited UNSCR 1325 in support of their demand for transparency and greater information, but have received little. They are now attempting to influence the international donor community, which provides technical support and funding to the peace process, to use its leverage. However little has moved until now. “The Peace process has become politicized” says Nehan, “It is more like a project which is being pushed by the international community as a quick fix for the transition of 2014.You do not see people involved, the involvement of civil society. Any group of society - if they are not armed, they are not involved. This discourages people because they recognize that they only way to be recognized is to be armed. Women are not involved at all, though we symbolically have nine women in the HPC.”

The aim of the High Peace Council is to start negotiations with the Taliban on a possible sustainable peace. Even though Afghan women are not generally against starting negotiations with the Taliban, they have to fear that women’s rights are not sufficiently taken into account in a potential peace agreement. “The Taliban have never accepted the Constitution” points out Humaira Rasuli, the Director of Medica Afghanistan. “They don’t accept women’s right to work outside home except perhaps as teachers and doctors – the rest of the women will not be allowed to work, especially the civil society. If you say you are advocate for women’s rights, you will be the first in line to go.” Rasuli has a clear idea of what could happen to her and her colleagues under a government that shares the intolerance of the Taliban ideology. She sees her colleagues face shades of it every day as they carry out the difficult task of providing legal support to women abused by families, wrongfully imprisoned by the government and without any support structures.

“When I meet women in the villages they all tell me that they fear they will have to stay inside their homes once peace is made with the Taliban. Everyone is concerned about that” says Rasuli.

Nargis Nehan the Director of the civil society organisation Equality for Peace and Democracy is similarly sceptical about the rush to reconcile with the Taliban pointing out that the intolerance which leads to violence will not disappear once the groups with an intolerant ideology are reconciled. “Security and peace in Afghanistan is not about reconciling with the Taliban or any militia. It is about different groups of society tolerating each other and living in harmony and it goes beyond women’s rights.”

Ghaffar, of the NGO HAWCA, remarks that current promises for protection of women’s rights in any peace plan ring hollow when one looks at the fact that earlier promised benchmarks with respect to women’s rights have been missed. For example the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS) and its commitment to the enrolment of women in official positions has not been fulfilled. HAWCA runs a woman’s shelter and Ghaffar is worried about the impact of the new shelter regulation“. For me it is not important who is running the shelter, it is the protection of women which is important.” Some of the women in Ghaffar’s shelter have run away from abusive domestic situation. Many other women in a similar situation end up in jail she points out. “There are women in prison for running away from violence”. It is this context that worries women giving rise to fears that despite the lip service to women’s rights there may be many more compromises.

The women’s movement has its own challenges to face as well. The cost of survival in a fractured political environment that is hostile to women’s participation has resulted in women’s groups often competing with each other for the limited space, rather than collaborating on common concerns. This is evident at a workshop for women members of the elected provincial councils, several of whom run down a member of parliament accusing her of being out of touch with the people and leading a lavish lifestyle. Other women activists step in to defuse the situation arguing that women need to come together if they are to make any gains. And while keeping a united front has been a challenge, women activists have been able to come together on specific issues, cooperating, networking and mobilizing in a way that was not possible before. “For the first time women are demanding positions. That is an important change as women are getting together in provinces and in Kabul.” The decision to put aside differences for the common goal is evident in the peace process. Though most women activists have severe reservations about the quality of the representation within the HPC, they have refrained from public condemnation arguing that some representation is significant and necessary rather than none at all. “It is more important for women to engage with the peace process (than stay away because representation is imperfect)” says Hassan. “If they don’t they will lose more than if they don’t engage.”

UNSCR 1325 provides a similar impetus. While most of the activists recognize its limitations, they also value it as a tool that they could use. The cooperation and progress within the women’s groups on this is evident from their clear enunciation of how this could be achieved. The rhetorical commitment to women’s rights as a general principle has to be translated into specifics, they insist, if the rights of the women are to be protected through and beyond the peace process.

“If you see 1325 it has not been applied realistically anywhere. How many peace processes have included women?” asks Hassan. Clear steps need to be spelt out guaranteeing the right of women to work, to education, to the right to travel, freedom of mobility and protection.

“We really do not have another tool in hand. UNSCR 1325 is a very strong tool to ensure women’s participation in the decision making level in the peace process, to protect the rights of women, to motivate the participation of women in these processes” says Ghaffar.

1325 is also a tool by which the women’s movement feels they could get the support of the international community, which, they think, has been half-hearted so far.

“Unfortunately despite all the commitments to women’s rights that theinternational community came with, it seems they don’t care about it anymore” says Nehan. “They are done with Afghanistan. They want a quick fix so they can show to their citizens they did what they came to do” says Nehan. “Things are getting worse for women (...). Women are not involved in the decisions of this country at all anymore.”

“The international community has a strong influence on the government. They can do something if they want. If they really want, the UN, for example, can make a positive change. Have they protected the rights of the women in the peace process until now? Not really”, says Ghaffar.

UNSCR 1325 provides civil society with the basis on which they can make concrete demands points out Rasuli. “1325 is not weak. It has a very clear aim and objective. We (Medica Afghanistan) are focusing on the women participation cluster as well as the protection cluster. That to me is one of the mechanisms for safeguarding the rights of women.”