A Voice for Afghan Women

News | April 27, 2012

On April 14-16, 2012, the EastWest Institute, in partnership with the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (WPC) of the National Assembly of Pakistan, arranged for the first official delegation of Pakistani women parliamentarians to visit Afghanistan.

This visit builds on an ongoing two-year effort of EWI’s Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention to strengthen the role of women in political life, and in conflict resolution and peacebuilding in Afghanistan in particular.

Over the course of two days the  parliamentarians, led by Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Member of Pakistan's National Assembly and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister,  discussed issues related to reconciliation with the Taliban and regional economic cooperation with Hamid Karzai, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Masoom Stanikzai, Advisor to the President on Internal Security and Head of the Secretariat for Afghanistan's High Peace Council, Zalmai Rassoul, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, Haji Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, the Speaker of the Lower House, and members of the Wolesi Jirga Commission on Women’s Affairs, Civil Society and Human Rights.

Though Afghan women parliamentarians make up nearly a third of seats in parliament, they struggle to make their voices heard in a male-dominated environment. Pakistani women parliamentarians work in a similar cultural, religious, and social context, yet they have made  far more political headway. Afghan women parliamentarians have called for more support from their colleagues in the region, and EWI’s Parliamentarians Network has facilitated a series of dialogues to answer that call.

This delegation is the first step in implementing the Islamabad Action Plan, a set of commitments outlined by Afghan and Pakistani women parliamentarians during their previous meeting in Islamabad in June 2011, which was also facilitated by EWI.

In the meeting with President Karzai, the Afghan leader declared: “This initiative is of immense importance to both countries and a great sign of a better future.” He called for more contacts between women parliamentarians in both countries, saying that such visits are “instrumental in strengthening of trust-building between the two nations.”

Women are critical players in the ongoing peace and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, often serving as agents of positive change in the region.  “Without women, no progress can be made in society,” Stanikzai added. Participants strongly endorsed the recommendation to ensure greater representation of women in all tracks of diplomacy.

Joint challenges, from extremism and terrorism to economic underdevelopment, should be addressed by joint efforts, according to the participants. The Taliban attacks on Kabul during the parliamentary visit served as a stark reminder of the work that remains to be done. These attacks, the Taliban’s broadest assault on Kabul in more than a decade, fired at the Afghan parliament only hours after the meeting came to a close.

As the international military presence winds down and Afghanistan sets to assume responsibility over its security in 2014, many – including participants in the meetings – fear a return to Taliban rule, and a subsequent retraction of women’s rights. While emphasizing the importance of engaging with those Taliban who are willing to negotiate and constructively discuss a peaceful resolution, Rassoul and Stanikzai both emphasized that the Taliban must accept the 2004 Afghan constitution which recognizes that women and men have equal rights and responsibilities under the law.

Participants suggested that an inclusive forum where Afghan women parliamentarians can develop a common agenda and work jointly, such as a women’s parliamentary caucus, would enable them to maximize their influence. “Only if women work together will they have their voices heard and safeguard their rights,one participant said.

The Commission on Women’s Affairs, Civil Society and Human Rights, one of eighteen permanent commissions of the Afghan parliament, has made impressive strides – most notably, by its recent successful push for a decree on combating violence against women. But because of the way parliamentary groups are structured, not all women parliamentarians are able to participate in such efforts.  To help change that, participants committed to taking steps towards the creation of an inclusive women’s group in the Afghan parliament, an initiative that has the backing of President Karzai. Participants speaking for Pakistan’s WPC pledged their ongoing support to their Afghan colleagues and invited them to Islamabad for an EWI-facilitated follow-up visit later this year.