Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is scheduled for a U.S. visit beginning on Sunday. He said in February that peace talks with the Taliban would start soon, and reports say the talks could be as early as this month.
Let’s hope so. For the past year it’s been hard to see progress through the bombs and bullets. Afghanistan is a place where peace just won’t stick. Radical Islamist Taliban insurgents have intensified their attacks on the capital with brazen bombings and afternoon raids.
According to the latest report from the United Nations, 2014 was the deadliest year for civilians caught up in Afghanistan’s war since the UN began keeping records in 2009. Civilian casualties, which include injuries as well as deaths, were up 22 percent from the previous record set in 2013, with the count topping 10,000 for the first time. The casualty count among women and children also reached record highs.
In addition to gunning down police, the Taliban have gone after Kabul’s police chief and an outspoken women’s rights activist. That may be because Afghan women are actively agitating for a place at the peace table. According to the international aid group Oxfam, women are being left out of government efforts to start peace talks.
There have been over a dozen peace pow-wows with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and only three have included women. When a handful of females were allowed to attend, they were criticized for being there without their husbands.
Women are worried that their rights will be bargained away by the Afghan High Peace Council, which has 61 men and only 9 women. The Taliban actually outnumber the women on the Council.
When the Taliban ruled from 1996 until 2001, women had virtually no rights. They could not work or go to school, and could not even leave their homes without a close male relative. President George W. Bush used women’s rights as part of the justification for the war. Though some progress was made early on, Taliban restrictions on women have come back strong.
The U.S. still claims that women’s rights in Afghanistan are a top priority, but it could be pretty words and nothing else. When former Afghan President Karzai signed a law legalizing marital rape and allowing men to withhold food from wives who refused sex, President Obama verbally condemned it. But no mention was made of withdrawing money if the law was not overturned.
There can be no real peace with honor if women are left out. Even though the Afghan constitution guarantees women’s rights, let’s hope President Obama urges President Ghani to include women when they meet. Without women at the table, women’s rights will be an empty promise if peace is ever negotiated.
Martha Burk is the author of Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics and the Change We Need! and Cult of Power: The Inside Story of the Fight to Open Augusta National Golf Club, and How It Exposed the Ingrained Corporate Sexism That Kept Women Down.