The Chicago Summit was predictably dominated by the issue of Afghanistan and the transition of security responsibilities from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces. According to President Barack Obama, NATO and its allies would ‘leave Chicago with a clear road map’. But as the international community starts drawing down its presence, the biggest losers will be the women of Afghanistan. Having suffered terribly under the Taliban, women stood the most to gain when Western forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, and stand the most to lose when they leave in 2014.
Once upon a time, in the 50s and 60s, Afghan women wore short skirts and were able to enjoy education, pursue careers and live relatively independently. But Afghanistan throughout most its history has not been a kind place to women.
After the Taliban regime’s rapid demise in 2001 conditions were meant to improve for women across Afghanistan. The 2001 Bonn Agreement paid specific attention to the women of the shattered Central Asian nation. The US and its allies set about creating the necessary infrastructure for a more female-inclusive society, from girls’ schools to female health-clinics. The case for a more female-inclusive Afghanistan is clear. As a 2005 report sponsored by the World Bank argues, the cost of gender-exclusion is simply too great for one of the world’s poorest nations: with a GDP per capita of just over $200 per year, Afghanistan can’t afford to disable half its potential workforce.
But progress on women’s issues remained elusive. In the aftermath of the Taliban’s toppling many women feared the Islamic fundamentalists would be back soon enough, and refused to shed the burka. Asne Seierstad’s ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ captures the enduring patriarchal and misogynist attitudes that blinded families to the value of educating their daughters. In one case that grabbed international headlines, a woman was imprisoned after being raped. And in 2012, Human Rights Watch produced a damning report titled I had to run away criticising the Karzai government for lack of progress on women’s rights – deploring the fact that over 400 girls and women across Afghanistan are locked up for ‘moral crimes’.
The Chicago Summit Declaration signed by the leaders of NATO member-countries last weekend certainly makes reference to women. It reiterates the allies’ commitment to the Bonn Agreement and its principles of ‘a democratic society’, with human rights and ‘fundamental freedoms’ for Afghans, including ‘equality of men and women and the active participation of both in Afghan society’.
The problem is that the Taliban is also actively participating in Afghan society. In fact, it is not just in discussion with the Afghani government about taking up a role in post-2014 Afghanistan, but also in direct negotiations with the Obama administration. And the Taliban is unlikely to respect any commitments to women’s rights reiterated by NATO leaders as they direct their troops to the exit.
The Summit Declaration also urges the government of Afghanistan to produce ‘tangible progress’ of its commitment to the Bonn principles, as ‘continued progress towards these goals will encourage NATO nations to further provide their support [to Afghanistan] up to and beyond 2014’. So presumably, if no progress is made on the role and place of women in Afghanistan, then international support will dry up even quicker.
Sacrificing Afghanistan’s Women
With the US, NATO and their allies set on departing Afghanistan by 2014 the latest, they are negotiating for some kind of peace with the Taliban to facilitate transition—and ultimately allow the retreating Western forces to save face. But having departed, they will leave a power vacuum for the Taliban to fill. Although it is unlikely the miscreants will rule the entire country, they are likely to carry much sway in government. To paraphrase female Afghan parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi, the women of Afghanistan now risk becoming “the sacrifice by which peace is achieved”. Having potentially had so much to gain, women are now set to become Afghanistan’s biggest losers.
Jerry Hofhuis recently completed a Master’s Degree at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org