Under Taliban rule, Afghan women have suffered years of humiliation, violence, and repression. This reality makes the gains they have achieved over the past decades all the more remarkable. These gains have not been free; Afghan women earned each and every one through dogged perseverance, inspired creativity, and relentless optimism. Those gains are now under threat, and many Afghan women fear a return to a time when their rights were violated with impunity.
As the U.S. negotiates with the Taliban an end to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Afghan women have been locked out of the negotiating room. A new piece of legislation before Congress may help let them back in. The Afghan WIN Act (H.R. 4097) calls on the State Department to submit a formal report accounting for what it’s doing to include women in the peace talks. The bill also forces the Trump Administration to develop a plan to support Afghan women’s rights in reconstruction. It’s a sorely needed bill, but it won’t pass if Americans don’t demand it.
The eighth round of U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations has kicked off in Doha, Qatar, and lead negotiators are projecting optimism that they can reach a deal in the coming weeks. If these negotiations — and the intra-Afghan talks that will follow them — are successful, much of the U.S. public will surely welcome an end to this war. Almost 60 percent of all U.S. adults say that the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan was “not worth fighting.”
Afghan civilians will have more to celebrate still. In the last decade, more than 24,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. According to the United Nations, 2018 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since it began keeping records in 2009. The Taliban and other anti-government elements have historically been responsible for the bulk of Afghanistan’s civilian casualties. That dynamic flipped in early 2019 and a UN report found that, over the first three months, the Afghan government and its international allies, including the U.S., have caused the majority of civilian deaths. Amnesty International has repeatedly criticized U.S.-led international forces for causing civilian casualties in Afghanistan and for failing to account for these deaths. The violence and insecurity have had an impact: Afghans self-report as being more miserable than any other population worldwide.
Amidst this misery and suffering, Afghan women and girls stand out as one partial bright spot. Since the collapse of the Taliban’s government in 2001, women and girls in Afghanistan have muscled their way into sectors of society from which they were previously excluded. Afghan women are lawyers, doctors, judges, teachers, engineers, athletes, activists, politicians, journalists, and bureaucrats. They run their own businesses and serve in the ranks of the military and police. Many of the Taliban’s most draconian laws have been repealed. Afghan girls attend school, and women can leave their homes without a male escort and secure medical care from male physicians.
Certainly, Afghanistan still has a very long way to go with respect to women’s rights. Women’s lives in the country are often brutal and the statistics that describe their frequently invisible suffering are grim. Their life expectancy is scandalously low and child marriage rates are stunningly high. Women account for almost all suicides and almost all women experience domestic violence. In a 2018 report, the United Nations documented hundreds of murders and honor killings of women over the course of a two year period. Less than one out of five resulted in conviction and imprisonment.
Despite the challenges they face, Afghan women and girls are eager to hold onto the gains they’ve made and are committed to securing more of them. They’ve taken to twitter, sharing their stories under the hashtags #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack and #MyRedLine. They’ve organized, rallied together, and spoken out in forums across the world.
Since the start of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks, women have largely been barred from the negotiating table. Indeed, for the first seven rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, women were not invited to participate in the discussions at all. This fact is especially jarring because the research on women’s participation in peace negotiations is unambiguous: When women are included, the likelihood of reaching an agreement increases and the agreement is likely to last longer. The logic for Afghan women’s participation in particular is as simple as it gets: no one is better positioned to represent the interest of Afghan women than Afghan women themselves. And no one stands more to lose from the Taliban than Afghan women themselves.
And now, there’s something that all people in the U.S. can do to support Afghan women. On August 5, Congressman Bill Keating (D-MA) introduced the Afghan Women in Negotiations (“WIN”) Act (H.R.4097). This bipartisan bill is cosponsored by Representatives Lois Frankel (D-FL), Ann Wagner (R-MO), and Joe Wilson (R-SC) and, if it becomes law, would require the State Department to report on the participation of Afghan women in the talks and design a strategy for Afghan reconstruction that includes support for women and girls.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. chief negotiator with the Taliban, has already affirmed the importance of including women. If it becomes law, H.R. 4097 will help translate Ambassador Khalilzad’s words into deeds. Members of congress, however, won’t act on the bill unless they know their constituents support it.
This is where you come in. Contact your congressperson with a simple demand: Cosponsor H.R. 4097, the Afghan WIN Act, to make sure that women and girls in Afghanistan have a chance to shape the negotiations that will shape their lives.