Much has been achieved at international level in the critical field of women, peace and security in recent years. Yet women are still woefully underrepresented in the Afghan peace process. The basic rights for which they fought so hard are at stake in the country’s internal negotiations with the Taliban.
October 2020 saw the 20th anniversary of the signature of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace and Security”. A lot has happened over the last two decades: there is growing international recognition of the fact that involving women in peace processes and adopting gender-sensitive approaches lead to longer and more durable peace; that societies with greater gender equality are more peaceful and that, conversely, discrimination and violence against women is a leading cause of conflict.
But there is still a long way to go. Even looking solely at the representation of women, which is still inadequate, but a first step towards a more gender-sensitive structure of peace processes, there is still a lot of ground to catch up. As the SHEcurity index shows, there has been no involvement of women at all in most peace negotiations that have taken place since 2000, the gender ratio of negotiators has never been balanced, and in only one case has a woman, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, signed a peace treaty as negotiator in chief.
The European Union as a pioneer for women, peace and security?
Fourteen years after the ink dried on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, announced a ground-breaking decision in 2014: Sweden would become the first country in the world to agree on a framework for a feminist foreign policy. Since then, a handful of other EU member states have followed suit, including Denmark and Spain. A number of other countries, such as France, Germany, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Ireland have announced their intentions of bringing a more feminist dimension to their foreign policy.
The European Commission has also made a few great strides towards a more feminist foreign policy in recent years. The third EU gender action plan, published in autumn 2020, sets out highly ambitious targets for EU foreign policy, to be achieved by 2025. The European Commission’s particular focus is on the specific vulnerabilities of women and girls in armed conflicts or crisis situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Among other things, 85% of all activities should actively support gender equality and there is a target quota of 50% of women holding management level positions in all EU institutions involved, such as the European External Action Service. Furthermore, an intersectional approach will help to ensure that women and girls can enjoy their rights without limitation. Under this approach, the EU’s foreign policy activities will explicitly take account of the restrictions caused by various forms of discrimination that impact the lived experience of women and girls. This will establish gender equality as an overarching theme. Men and boys will also be called upon to play an active role in challenging gender roles and stereotypes. The EU agenda for women, peace and security, published in December 2019, is to be fully implemented by 2025. In this process, the European Commission has adopted several of the demands set out in the European Parliament’s report on building feminism into foreign policy.
The third EU gender action plan has now given the EU an excellent basis to systematically embed gender-sensitive approaches in its foreign policy actions. If it succeeds in meeting the targets set out in the action plan, it will be able to take on a global flagship role and stand alongside those of its Member States that have already stepped up.
What specific measures should now be taken? The Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament answered this question in March 2021 in a report on feminist foreign policy. It calls for greater involvement for women and other marginalised groups in peace processes. Additionally, there should be more restrictive and effective arms export controls and a joint approach to disarmament, while armament controls and non-proliferation should be extended at international level. There should also be training for civilian and military EU envoys on gender equality and the “Women, Peace and Security” agenda, to ensure that they apply gender-sensitive perspectives in their work. The Greens/EFA report also demands a zero-tolerance policy towards sexualised violence in situations of conflict, putting an end to the effective impunity of such offences and thus facilitating the reconciliation and peace consolidation processes.
Fawzia Koofi: women need to be part of the process. They can succeed in bringing about and securing lasting peace
The Afghan peace process is probably the only one underway at the moment in which women’s involvement is such a significant force in the drafting of a durable peace deal. However, there is still by no means an equal participation of the two sexes on the negotiating team. Fawzia Koofi and her fellow campaigners had to fight tooth and nail for a women’s quota in the Afghan Government’s negotiating team to be agreed upon at all. On top of this, not a single woman is represented on the Taliban team. This makes it even more important for women’s rights to be actively defended in the negotiations.
Afghanistan’s internal negotiations, which began in Doha in September 2020, originally gave rise to much hope among the population that the 40-year armed conflict could be brought to an end by a peace agreement. The talks ground to a halt in December 2020, probably due to expectations of a change of government in the United States. The negotiations are based on a treaty signed in February 2020 by the previous US administration and the Taliban. The treaty itself contains serious gaps: it excludes a role for the Afghanistan government and hence effectively any form of co-determination in the Afghan population, it does not establish a binding ceasefire, it secures the release of 5000 Taliban from prison and makes no mention of any obligation upon the Taliban in terms of democracy, human rights or women’s rights. It also determines the complete withdrawal of US troops by 1 May 2021. The Taliban went into the negotiations with their confidence boosted by the many concessions made to them. At the same time, the treaty is currently on the test bench, as the increasing number of targeted attacks in Afghanistan signals a break with the agreement. The new US government is therefore under pressure to redefine its Afghanistan strategy and come to a swift decision on troop withdrawal.
Since the US negotiator in chief Zalmay Khalilzad visited the two negotiating teams in Doha in March of this year with a proposal for an interim government, the situation has become even more complex and muddled. Currently, the possibility of a second “Bonn Conference” is being discussed. US State Secretary Antony Blinken suggests speeding up the process of concluding a peace treaty in a meeting of the two parties in Turkey, under the aegis of the United Nations, with political representatives from the wider region in attendance. This conference would continue to lay down the terms and conditions for an interim government representing both sides. However, a hastily cobbled-together agreement, as in the year 2001, carries the risk of repeating the same mistakes and forming the same kind of dysfunctional state. As the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to oppose an interim government of this kind, however, it is currently anybody’s guess as to how things will proceed.
In the meantime, the security situation in the country continues to escalate, with increased attacks and assassinations targeting activists, journalists and representatives of civil society. As recently as January 2021, two female judges were killed on their way to work and three women journalists were killed in an attack in early March. In fact, every woman in Afghanistan who is active in favour of women’s rights or humans rights in the country is risking her life, every single day.
Palwasha Hassan: conflicts cannot be resolved by military means alone
The current situation brings back unpleasant memories of the Taliban rule of 1996 – 2001. Since the darkest chapter in the country’s history for women’s rights and human rights ended, much progress has been made. Even if true equality in society is still a long way off, women’s rights are anchored in the Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution. Girls attend school, women have access to medical care and are part of public life; even their socio-economic status has improved. They work as journalists and judges, they are activists and politicians. Even the public narrative has changed unrecognisably in the last 20 years: thanks to a new generation of Afghan women, a discussion on their participation and basic rights is here to stay, at least among the urban population.
This is also thanks to the work of civil society organisations such as the Afghan Women’s Educational Centre. The director of the organisation, Palwasha Hassan, argues that violent conflicts and the related search for peace are no longer perceived by the public as areas that concern men alone. One need only take a look at the provinces to see how widespread calls for guarantees of women’s rights and women’s involvement in peace processes have become. In a study commissioned by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on people’s expectations from the peace process, however, only one in 10 respondents said that they would feel properly represented by women. However, it is worth nothing that more men than women expressed a wish to be represented by women. An agenda for the peace talks generated by the respondents put women’s rights in second position, directly behind the enforcement of the ceasefire. These results show that the desire to see women’s rights vouchsafed echoes right through Afghan society. As Palwasha Hassan can confirm: “it is now taken as read that women have a positive contribution to make to the peace process”.
Fawzia Kofi: the EU has done a great deal to protect women’s rights and human rights, but we expect more
With the new gender action plan and its “Women, Peace and Security” agenda, the EU can support the example set by European countries such as Sweden in the field of feminist foreign policy.
The EU is an important international player in the Afghan peace process that can wield influence over both parties to the negotiations, in conjunction with its allies. To do so, the EU, the US and NATO would have to sing from the same hymn sheet. Fawzia Koofi expects the EU at the very least to make a clear and energetic case for all progress made in the field of women’s rights over the last 20 years to be secured. It should also do all in its power to ensure that women are involved on an equal footing in the political and societal renewal of the Afghan state. Most importantly, however, all international players must now come together to ensure that the peace process continues and can move past the current fragile situation.
The European Parliament has made further suggestions for the European Union’s approach. In particular, the EU should insist that women’s rights be laid down in the new Afghan constitution as universal rights, stresses Green MEP Erik Marquardt (page available in German only). It is also critical that the growing violence and targeted attacks in the country be condemned, Petras Auštrevičius, Chair of the European Parliament delegation for relations with Afghanistan, urged in a press release published at the beginning of March 2021.
In all discussions on the involvement of women in peace processes, one thing should never be forgotten: it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. To give Palwasha Hassan the last word: “if women have no opportunity to participate, society misses out on a large and valuable contribution. And I think nobody should miss out on that opportunity”.
This article was first published by HBS Brussels.