One of my first jobs for Oxfam in Afghanistan in 2014 was to co-write and launch the Behind Closed Doors report about inclusive peacebuilding. While working on the talking points for the media, somebody had the interesting idea to calculate how many times women had actually been involved in peace meetings up to that point. We had produced a list of formal and informal consultations, but in the hectic run-up to the report launch, we simply had not thought about doing the math.
Lack of women’s involvement
At that time, we calculated that out of the 23 rounds of peace talks between 2005 and 2014, women had only been involved on five occasions (22 per cent). Their participation had been limited to two meetings held in the Maldives (where some Afghan MPs met informally with the Taliban in 2010) and three meetings in France (wherein 2011 and 2012, a series of meetings took place in Chantilly to promote intra-Afghan dialogue). We also found that during talks between the international community and the Taliban, not one Afghan woman had been involved.
What was most striking back in 2014 was that this very limited participation was completely at odds with the political rhetoric of both the Afghan government and the international community at the time. Including women in peace was the talk of the town, but in reality, nothing happened. This was also the case when there were finally some more formal talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Murree, Pakistan in July 2015. Zero women were involved.
What’s changed at the Peace Talks?
Fast forward five years, I was delighted to again work on an Oxfam report on inclusive peacebuilding in Afghanistan. This report: Because She Matters, provides an update on the situation and also showed how women can meaningfully participate beyond just ‘a seat at the table.’ We decided to again track formal and informal consultations and peace-related meetings, but this time we tried to be more comprehensive with the research.
Many hours of research ultimately produced an updated list of peace talks. This time, we found that women had been involved in 15 out of 67 exploratory meetings, formal and informal negotiations and internationally-backed consultations between 2005 and 2020. That was again around 22 per cent, and there was only a slight improvement in the years following 2014. Women were involved in 10 out of 34 talks, around 29 per cent.
Women’s participation in 2020
Since the intra-Afghan peace process was launched in Doha on the 12th of September 2020, there is hope that women’s meaningful participation will be taken more seriously. However, the government’s 21-member negotiation team initially only had five women included, which was later even decreased to four.
As one of the women was unable to attend during the first meetings in Doha, there were only three women involved: Dr. Habiba Sarabi, a former governor of Bamyan and former deputy chair of the High Peace Council; Fawzia Koofi, a Member of Parliament and women’s rights activist; and Sharifa Zurmati, a former Member of Parliament and former advisor and spokesperson of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Later, the fourth member, Fatima Gailani, former president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, was able to join them.
As the Taliban delegation does not include a single woman, a heavy burden rests on the shoulders of these four women. Yet even if their participation remains limited, it is important that women are included in all stages and at all levels of the intra-Afghan peace talks.
Long term effects of women’s involvement
Women’s involvement will not only benefit the peace process – peace agreements tend to be more inclusive and sustainable if women are included – but also Afghan society at large. Women’s participation will set an important example of why the meaningful participation of women is so important.
In a still predominantly conservative, patriarchal society, it is important that women’s participation slowly becomes normalized even despite persisting cultural and institutional barriers. That requires women role models such as the four female representatives in Doha to be visible and to express their opinions, but it relies even more on men. An increase of male champions that stand up and defend the rights and added value of women can really make a difference.
In that sense, the intra-Afghan peace talks represent only one platform where Afghan men can rally behind women’s rights and empowerment; the efforts to gradually change gender norms go much beyond that.