As peace talks in Afghanistan begin, Safir Sahar reflects on why it's so important that women's rights are central to the negotiations.

The history of conflict in Afghanistan is as old as I am. I was born in Nangarhar, Afghanistan in 1978. As a young man, I lived under the Taliban regime. Now, with renewed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban underway, I am trying to imagine life without war in my home country. I am not alone. The peace talks have generated some optimistic hashtags on social media in Afghanistan: #ifPeaceComes and #WhenThereisCeasefire. Many Afghans have expressed hopes that they can visit parts of the country that have been under Taliban control. President Ashraf Ghani has said he would like to return to his home village in Logar Province to write books about his country’s future. Former President Hamid Karzai has said that he wants to visit Mazar and Badakhshan and other parts of the country as an ordinary citizen without security risk.

Yet this season of hope in Afghanistan is tempered by an undercurrent of fear, especially among women — including my sister. Life for many Afghan women has improved dramatically since the 1990s, when the Taliban forbade them to attend school or to leave the house without a male escort. My sister is a teacher, and when I speak to her about the peace talks, she worries the negotiations will give the Taliban its former strength, and she won’t be permitted to return to school again. Although some Afghans believe that the Taliban won’t reclaim the power it once had, my sister tells me that she remembers the 1990s vividly, and she distrusts what the Taliban says for the sake of negotiations, worrying that once they have power again, they will implement whatever policies and laws they want.

The Afghan people — including my sister and me — are sick of war and bloodshed, of failed peace talks and broken ceasefires. But we cannot negotiate away the gains that have opened doors for women and girls in Afghanistan.

Promotion for the event Webinar: What is the Price of Peace? Voices of Afghan Women

Throughout my career in development, I’ve had the honor to work alongside my fellow Afghans, women and men, for whom peace and gender equality in our country have been their life’s work. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2003, I have worked to advocate for women’s and children’s rights, with the media and civil society sector, on legislative issues, and trade and economic development. I have seen the long, challenging journey of progress and wouldn’t want to lose any ground.

Currently, women outside Taliban-controlled areas have much more freedom to pursue careers, join the military, seek public office, and enjoy life without oppressive restrictions. Some of my law school classmates who were forced to drop out under the Taliban have now earned their degrees. The fact that 22 percent of the members of the recent loya jirga were women is one sign of progress. Afghanistan has just earned a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a first for the country. Five members of the Afghanistan government’s peace negotiating team are women. On the other hand, there are no women in the Taliban’s delegation.

Considering all of that progress, it is clear that no one has as much at stake in the peace talks as Afghan women. The women I have talked with, including my sister, express fear that the international community will forget them if and when the negotiations finalize. They fear the Taliban may have a stronger position at the negotiation table without U.S. and NATO support to potentially back the Afghan government in enforcing any potential peace agreement. These women hope that they will not be the biggest losers when and if a deal is ever reached.

The peace talks are underway following a delay because the Afghan government and the Taliban were at odds over the Taliban’s demand for the release of additional prisoners. The talks started 12 days ago, there hasn’t been any progress. The negotiating team is still discussing the agenda and logistics. Other hurdles remain, including the viability of any ceasefire agreement. We’ve seen how quickly previous ceasefires have failed.

For many of us, the biggest unanswered question is: Have the Taliban fundamentally changed?

There are some encouraging signs. Under Taliban rule, television was banned. Now, Taliban leaders are interviewed on television. In one recent interview in a Taliban leader’s home, the journalist noticed a large flat screen TV and asked about it. The leader explained that television is part of life. I noticed that another Taliban official has trimmed his beard, which was also forbidden under Taliban rule.

I do not think the Taliban are prepared to reimpose the restrictions that defined life in Afghanistan in the 1990s as my sister does. But despite the anecdotes above, no one really knows how much the Taliban have changed and if those changes will mean much for women’s rights. In fact, it is clear that factions within the Taliban differ over what their version of an Islamic regime should look like. Just today, news reports revealed that the Taliban killed 28 Afghan police officers, a signal that despite the negotiations, some factions of the Taliban may not be interested in peace or progress.

After four decades of near-constant conflict, the Afghan people are tired of war yet cynical about whether negotiations will result in peace for all of Afghanistan’s people. We know that peace will require compromise on both sides. But peace cannot come at the expense of women’s rights. We cannot undermine the dauntless work of Afghan women to secure equality. We must ensure women’s rights and gender equality are central to the negotiations for lasting peace. The peace talks present a golden opportunity to build a stronger, brighter, more inclusive future for Afghanistan. We cannot let this opportunity be squandered.

To learn more, Chemonics invites you to “What Is the Price of Peace? Voices of Afghan Women” on September 29, 2020 at 10 a.m. (EDT)/ 6:30 p.m. (AFT). Join us for this hour-long virtual conversation with Afghan women working to ensure that their voices are heard and that the peace agreement includes verifiable assurances for equality and inclusivity for women in Afghanistan.

*Banner photo caption: Community, government, and development leaders attend the opening ceremony of the USAID’s Promote: Women in Government Project’s Job Readiness Program at the Afghan Civil Service Institute in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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