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Afghan women refuse to be sidelined in peace talks

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Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

A special committee has been set up in Afghanistan in a bid to ensure women’s views are represented in future peace talks.

Nine women have set up the committee claiming they are being sidelined in the peace council set up by President Hamid Karzai two years ago to try to negotiate with the Taliban to end the war.

The women’s committee members will travel around the country to gather women’s views and present to the council, said one of the members Gulali Noor Safi, who is also a member of parliament from the northern province of Balkh.

“Our mission is to figure out how to keep the role of women active in the High Peace Council and not have our presence serve only as a statistic,” said Safi, who claimed that until now women had only taken part in workshops and had not been involved in making major decisions.

The launch of the new committee coincided with a speech given by secretary of state Hillary Clinton pledging that Afghan women’s rights will be protected under a new peace deal.

Speaking at a lunch to mark the 10th anniversary of the US Afghan Women’s Council, Clinton said any peace deal with insurgents must abide by the Afghan constitution, which enshrines women’s rights.

“We will not waver on this point,” said Clinton, who added that a peace agreement “excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It’s a figment that will not last.”

Clinton acknowledged that “many” Afghan women are worried that “their rights, their roles, their concerns” will be sacrificed and the old days will return.

But she promised that “the United States cannot and will not let that happen”, adding that even as the US role in Afghanistan changes during the next few years of transition it was “absolutely critical” women’s gains are protected.

“We will continue to stand with and work closely with Afghan women,” she said.

But the failure of the US to speak out after the the Ulema council recently issued a statement about women’s “secondary” status (see WVoN story) has reinforced concerns that leaders on all sides are willing to sacrifice women’s rights in the search for a peace deal.

A recent incident also raised concerns that US influence is already on the wane. After the New York Times reported recently that female guards have been carrying out internal searches of women visitors to Pol-i-Charki prison, complaints by the US government and withdrawal of assistance to the prison failed to bring about any change.

The issue has been interpreted as a battle for control of the prison system – reinforcing concerns among women that their rights will be sacrificed as leaders jostle for power.

It’s not just the Taliban and other insurgents that women are concerned about – the Karzai administration itself may give up some of the gains made in recent years.

Karzai provoked outrage last month when he backed the recommendations from clerics that called for segregation of the sexes in the workplace and allowed husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances.

“What is worrying is the government backing the recommendations of the Ulema council,” said Safi.

“It is the government’s responsibility to protect women’s rights and not have them compromised. So long as they do so, then the Taliban will have to as well.”

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