Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: How to reach the women


1. Background

On 15 November 2005, the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) hosted a Nordic/Baltic conference on 'Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: How To Reach the Women', in cooperation with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The conference set out to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and information on policy, programmes and projects among decisionmakers within appropriate ministries from the Nordic and Baltic states, representatives of international organizations, and representatives from Norwegian organizations involved in practical work in Afghanistan. A number of Afghan and international guests were invited as speakers and participants, including H. E. Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's minister of education; Ms Meryem Aslan, the director of UNIFEM Afghanistan; Ms Shukria Barakzai, member of parliament in Afghanistan; Ms Orzala Ashraf of Afghan civil society organization HAWCA; H. E. Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, Norway's minister of defence; Mr Raymond Johansen, state secretary within the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs; Lieutenant Colonel Arne Opperud, representing the Norwegian army staff; and Mr Dag Størkesen, representing the Norwegian police.

The degrading treatment of women during the Taliban regime provoked strong negative reactions both within the international community and among common Afghans - which ironically contributed to giving Afghan women a level of attention they had never known previously. As a result, the situation of women in Afghanistan was high on the agenda immediately after the fall of the Taliban. However, while the post-2001 situation had presented the international community with an exceptional opportunity to improve the situation of Afghan women, it is questionable whether subsequent efforts to include women and their needs in peace, security and development processes within the country have been sufficient.

Norway has been providing support to President Hamid Karzai and his government since 2001, and it was chair of the Afghanistan Support Group in 2002. The conference 'Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: How To Reach the Women' forms part of the Norwegian government's efforts to increase the civilian element of its contribution to stability and peace building in Afghanistan - reaching out to the Afghan population, increasing security for civilians, and providing basic needs such as health services and education. The conference programme reflected recognition of the fact that peace for Afghan women must rest on a comprehensive and inclusive understanding of that concept. The conference was also designed to contribute to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, along with the Norwegian government's Action Plan for the Implementation of SCR 1325 of 2006.

What follows below is a synthesis of the discussions at the conference 'Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: How To Reach the Women'. It presents a summary of the views and proposals presented by the speakers and members of the audience.

Afghanistan has endured almost 30 years of war, and it is important to remember that Afghan women have been active peace builders both within the home and in public life during this time - not just victims. Although one cannot talk of a women's peace movement in Afghanistan, women have fought for the rights of their children, as well as for education and health services, throughout the decades of armed conflict, and they have found ways of ensuring the provision of these services under very difficult conditions. So far, however, Afghan women have been given limited opportunity to participate in peacebuilding activities by the government of Afghanistan and the international community. The role of women in the public sphere is still heavily constrained by cultural norms and practices, and a political culture that excludes women prevails, preventing them from having an influence on decision making.

Six years after the fall of the Taliban regime and the signing of the Bonn agreement in 2001, some incremental progress can be seen with regard to the situation of women in Afghanistan. Women no longer have to wear a burka (drape); they can travel without a mehram (male relative); more girls than ever are in school; and women have better access to health services than during the Taliban regime. Furthermore, since 2001, Afghanistan has developed and endorsed a number of formal documents securing the rights of Afghan women, and the 2005 parliamentary elections improved opportunities for Afghan women to participate in political life. Nonetheless, six years after the fall of the Taliban, policy and practice are still worlds apart, and there is a long way to go before the new policies will be fully or even partially implemented.

At this juncture, there is a need:

- to develop legislation;

- to implement existing policies; and

- to intensify efforts to involve women at all levels of public life.

Security Threats

Many Afghans have not experienced a peaceful Afghanistan in their lifetime. Sadly, the security situation in the country has deteriorated severely over the last two years, and today Afghanistan faces a large number of security threats. These are not limited to threats from the Taliban, and include political, military and ideological spoilers. The country's deteriorating security situation affects the individual security of women, men and children throughout the country, who are not just at risk from the Taliban and other violent groups, but may also suffer from the effects of attacks by Afghan and coalition forces.

Women in Afghanistan are disproportionately affected by conflict, both in their homes and within the public sphere. Like all Afghans, women are victims of the general level of violence in the country. However, they are also affected by gender-based violence.

- Challenges to women's security in Afghanistan are not one-dimensional but encompass domestic violence, societal violence and state violence.

- Security for Afghan women means not only physical security against violence but also social security, inclusion and participation - the ability to have control and influence over both one's private and one's public life.

- This entails being able to access services, knowing about one's rights, and being able to participate in the forums and processes where decisions are made.

- While poorly documented, domestic violence against women is widespread and includes sexual abuse and forced marriage.

- Conservative traditional norms and cultural practices still prevalent in Afghan society reduce women's ability to have control over their own lives, making it difficult for women to exercise their social roles, particularly in the political sphere.

- Women who hold public positions - such as members of parliament, civil society activists, government officials and journalists - are particularly vulnerable to threats and abuses, often receiving death threats. This obviously constrains their participation in public life and hampers their opportunities to exercise their rights as citizens.