In Afghan Reconciliation Talks, Women Deserve a Full Voice

Commentary | December 02, 2011

Amidst reports of a Pakistani boycott of the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5, many have overlooked an important fact. Thirteen of the 40 official Afghan delegates who will accompany President Hamid Karzai are women.

Many see reason to fret about the fate of Afghan women; there are widespread rumors that the Taliban may be among Bonn’s participants, and it is feared that their agenda will trump the interests of women at the conference. The significant representation of women in the official Afghan delegation to Bonn, however, sets Afghanistan apart as a more inclusive actor, especially when keeping in mind that of the 21 major peace processes from 1992 to 2005, only 2.4 percent of signatories were women.

This inclusiveness was not guaranteed. Rather, it was the result of persistent and persuasive lobbying by Afghan women themselves, including instrumental efforts by members of the EastWest Institute’s Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention.

While the Bonn conference is not a formal peace dialogue, it is foreseen that it will outline a vision for Afghanistan and could reinvigorate the reconciliation process. The 2001 Bonn Conference established a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in addition to the Afghan Human Rights Commission. Bonn 2011 represents a major opportunity to further enshrine gender equality and human rights in Afghanistan’s post-2014 order.

The Afghan Women’s Network hails the delegation as a “big victory for Afghan women.” But female presence at the conference, though an important step in the right direction, does not guarantee sufficient influence. Only the outcomes of the conference will reveal whether women are truly included in the discussion, or whether they are simply appearing for “women’s sake,” without real opportunities to participate. An enduring peace depends on female participation for several reasons.

First, conference conclusions must be deemed legitimate and have the necessary “buy-in” from and sense of ownership among the general populace if they are to contribute to security and prosperity. History has shown that it is not possible for the conditions of a sustainable peace to be determined by a select few. Excluding half of the population from the outset severely diminishes the prospects that future plans will result in broad-based, sustainable peace.

Second, if women lack an active voice, issues that disproportionately affect women and may be key to avoiding future conflict may escape notice. Over 45 conflict situations during the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, only 18 of 300 peace agreements have addressed sexual violence, according to the PeaceWomen Project.

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. In a Thomson Reuters Foundation study, 90 percent of women polled feared the withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014 would leave them in danger.

Just as the development community has recognized the centrality of women to a country’s economic growth, an inclusive approach to security acknowledges the engagement of women as a prerequisite for peace.

The participation of female delegates, however, is not sufficient to assure peace. Those who label women “natural” peacemakers merely reinforce gender stereotypes that women are innately more cooperative and passive than men—stereotypes blown away by female leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir.

The question of whether women are inherently agents of change is a moot point. The real question is why anyone would needlessly undermine an already fragile process by excluding half of the population.

The meaningful participation of women is one of many crucial requirements for a successful outcome from Bonn. The lack of progress made by traditional power holders in Afghanistan calls for a new approach, one that is inclusive, representative and legitimate. The stakes are too high to continue to expect radically better results in Afghanistan without any change of approach.

Jessica Zimerman is a Coordinator of the Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention at the EastWest Institute.