Hasty Troop Withdrawal Endangers Afghan Women

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Osama bin Laden's death has spurred talk of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. But if troops go away before a true re-integration process for the Taliban, commentator Jeanne Bryer wonders what chance women will have.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Lawmakers in U.S. Congress--particularly some Democrats-- are clamoring to scale back the long, expensive war in Afghanistan this summer. British Prime Minister David Cameron has also signaled that he is paving the way for early troop withdrawal.

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, hopes are rising that peace can be negotiated between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders.

Women in the country are hearing rumors that talks with the Taliban are already taking place in secret and this is alarming. Without the representation and participation of women there can be no assurance that their rights will be upheld after the peace process and that could spell disaster. Women risk losing liberty, education and employment.

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The presence of foreign troops has caused significant issues too. For example, May 29 brought an errant NATO strike that killed at least nine women and children. But this tragedy should not be used as a reason for troop withdrawal. The Taliban are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths during the war.

In May, Safia Siddiqi, a women's activist and former member of the Afghan National Economy Committee, said on a national radio broadcast that nothing had improved for women in rural areas and that women need each other and the international forces to attain peace and security.

Female activists recall that in 1948 Afghanistan was a signatory to the Declaration of Universal Human Rights and in 1953 ratification of the Convention on the Political Rights of Women afforded them all the political rights--including the right to vote in elections and to hold public office--that men enjoyed.

Not a Western Import

Women's rights are not a recent Western import but freedoms taken away by successive regimes who waged war with foreign interference, they say. Even with these rights, in the past educated women were the elite few and the majority lived enclosed within the confines of the home, often uneducated. This is true today too, but with a key difference: Most women now know precisely what they should still have.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Afghan women begged the international community to help them.

I interviewed many myself in 2000 and 2001 while reporting on aid programs for a Britain-based nongovernmental organization. Educated or not, rich or poor, all the women appealed to me to ask my government to save them from the Taliban.

They told me: "All we want is security so we can have education for our children and to be able to work." They feared and dreaded the Taliban and many had been widowed by this very movement with whom the U.S. and U.K. governments are considering negotiating. Many are anxious about their economic rights. They need to be able to work, to earn money to feed and house their children.

When the Taliban were in power, the women of Afghanistan were denied those rights. Women were banned from working outside the home except in highly restricted areas. Widows only had recourse to living on the kindness of their neighbors, on charity, of which there was little during this time, and by begging. I saw many women pathetically holding out their hands from under their burkas in supplication for a coin, risking a beating if a Talib saw them alone in the street.

Seats Needed at the Table

When people talk of reconciliation with the Taliban, should we not ask who they intend to include? Women need seats at the table when negotiations take place. Otherwise it's hard for women to believe that Taliban re-integration is sincere and not a charade for foreign observers that will dissolve the minute troops withdraw.

Women have made gains in the cities and there are many examples of girls now going to school. Yet in some areas, like Helmand, they still risk their lives by attending school. Girls' education is often curtailed after primary school. Daughters are still used to settle disputes. The maternal mortality rate there is among the highest in the world.

Currently Afghans neither support their government, because they know that many are corrupt, nor international forces, which do not appear to take enough care when launching attacks. Both must change before the Taliban can be isolated.

Without doubt though there needs to be reconciliation with men who are currently alienated from the Afghan government. And we know from Northern Ireland that it is sometimes possible for terrorists to become respected members of society and even the government. But this can only be achieved when all parties concerned can be confident that such men have renounced terrorist activity.

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I've always had a lot of sympathy for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. They disliked Taliban rule, but didn't support the liberation of Afghanistan with the help of US/NATO allies the drug/war lords. Apparently because they didn't have any guns, they were totally excluded from any part in the democratic government installed by US/NATO. I wish I had seen more quotes from them and less from US/NATO generals.
Personally, I'm torn between supporting US/NATO continued laying waste to Afghanistan and supporting misogynistic, corrupt drug dealing puppet government and allowing the Taliban back, which US/NATO is getting ready to do.
I'd like to see US/NATO money not spent on bribes or bombs but a dozen engineer battalions building wells, roads, schools and hospitals.

A very well written piece that starkly sets out the plight of the marginalised women there. I worry about sustainability too. Even if women were to be included in the negotiations how would a guarantee be extracted that women would always be given a voice?

This is an excellent and well written reminder that wars are sometimes about noble causes, and to not fight for the people who are being trodden upon, is, in a part of you, to give up on what you believe in, yourself. The question is how, peacefully, can this war be fought? If fought peacefully, are you only leaving the potential victims to be killed more readily, or are you giving everyone a chance to peacefully work out their differences? The world's experience with the Taliban and Al Qaeda is that they kill with religious fervour and belief, so waiting to see if they will choose another path the next time, has not in the past been successful. At such times, I think about Gandhi, and wonder what would have happened to him if he were here in Afganistan today, if he would be able to peacefully accomplish what others have not? He was more singularly dedicated to peaceful ways than any other stateman of the 20th century, and maybe we need another such leader.