Afghanistan's women are demanding a seat at the table in negotiations over the country's future, determined to prevent the gains they have made since the 2001 fall of the Taliban from being bargained away. But they are meeting resistance.
Women's rights activists are not just concerned about the Taliban, who were notorious for their repression of women during their rule. They are just as worried that religious conservatives, warlords and strongmen who dominate Afghanistan's United States-backed leadership — and whose attitudes toward women often differ little from the Taliban — will trade away their rights to reach a deal.
Pressure is on for a peace accord as the US seeks to end its long military presence in Afghanistan.
For women, the stakes are high. The advances they have made are important — for example, women are now members of Parliament, and their rights are enshrined in the constitution, including the right to education. But the gains are fragile and limited, and nearly 18 years after the US-led coalition ousted the Taliban, Afghan women still live under a crushing weight of discrimination. The laws that do exist are rarely enforced, activists say, giving male relatives and tribal councils almost complete say over women's and girls' lives. That leaves them vulnerable to violence, early marriage and exclusion from work and education. The 2018 Women, Peace and Security Index rated Afghanistan as the second worst place in the world to be a woman, after Syria.
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Strong participation in talks is "not a gift, it is our right", said Suraya Pakzad, an activist. "We, the women of Afghanistan, are suffering, fighting to bring peace in Afghanistan, to change Afghanistan."
But so far, the door has been largely closed to them. President Ashraf Ghani appointed only five women to a 37-member council created to shepherd negotiations. Dozens of women were taken off the list of planned participants at the first round of all-Afghan talks between the Government and Taliban, meant to have been held last week in Qatar. The gathering was cancelled because of a separate dispute.
Activists say the advances for women are erratically enforced and hardly felt in rural areas where most Afghans live.
Only 16 per cent of the workforce is women, one of the lowest rates in the world, and half of Afghanistan's women have had four years or less of education. Only around half of school-aged girls go to school, and most girls are married before 19 to men selected by their parents. In some villages, girls as young as 7 or 8 are regularly married off. Women who leave an abusive husband or marry a man of their choice risk being imprisoned for "morality crimes".