Afghan women at the peace table

By Helena Cobban

From The Christian Science Monitor©, November 27, 2001

Charlottesville, Va.

It's great news that a handful of women are expected to be among the Afghan leaders meeting under UN auspices in Bonn, Tuesday, to plan for their country's future. But the campaign to empower Afghan women as full members of their society - including to restore to them powers they already had back in the 1970s - will still be a long one.

The United States must place a continued and serious focus on this campaign. On Nov. 19, Secretary of State Colin Powell underlined the administration's commitment to working to ensure that the women of Afghanistan, "have a place in their future government." That's a good start. But let's make sure the role allowed to Afghan women is not just decorative, or symbolic. After all, Afghan women community leaders have skills in building and sustaining community life that their country desperately needs if it is ever to see a hope-filled peace.

Empowering Afghan women is not a matter of granting them any special or slightly patronizing "favors." It is, rather, to give all Afghans - male and female - the best chance they have to shake off their lengthy legacy of civil strife, impoverishment, and despair. Everywhere around the world, in recent years, the lesson has become clear: Societies that support women's rights and empower women in leadership roles are more likely to achieve better lives for their people, and more likely to be at peace, than those that oppress women.

Afghanistan's own recent history underlines the tragic underside of that lesson. "For the last 20 years of my life," one Afghan woman leader recently told the UN Security Council, "the leadership of men has only brought war and suffering."

Yes, the Taliban were particularly bad in this regard. But many of our current military "allies" in Afghanistan are not much better than the Taliban in the way they treat women. That's why the US, the UN, and other allies need to keep the pressure up on women's empowerment. And that's why, in addition to talking to the same-old, same-old Afghan "warlords," our diplomats also need to work proactively and supportively with the country's many female community organizers and leaders: people who toiled against unbelievably tough odds to ensure the survival of families and communities while, too often, the men were away from home, fighting.

If Afghan women are included as full participants at the peace table, they will most likely strengthen the constituency there that is planning - once the Taliban and Al Qaeda are no longer a threat - for a thorough demobilization of the military element in their society. These women, like women in war-plagued countries everywhere, have lived with the consequences when resources needed to meet basic community needs such as food, housing, or healthcare are swallowed up instead by the military. And they have seen firsthand how excessive militarization added to, rather than subtracted from, everyone's sense of chronic insecurity.

True, Afghanistan will need plenty of visionary male leaders - as well as massive international support - if it is ever to turn from the path of war to that of security, development, and peace. But Afghan women leaders will play a special role in helping to bring hope and peace to their country - and the time to start empowering them to do that is now. During the coming weeks and months, here's what President Bush and other world leaders should do:

Continue meeting with respected Afghan women leaders - at all levels, including the highest. Afghan women should be included in mixed-gender leadership meetings, as well as, possibly, some women-only meetings. And if their menfolk object to such meetings? Tough! This is the way the international community (that is, after all, helping free all Afghans from the curse of the Taliban) intends to operate in the 21st century.

Definitely, reject the findings of any supposed Afghan popular consultations from which the views and votes of women have been excluded. Women's voices must always be sought, always included.

Make awareness of gender issues an integral part of all peacekeeping and aid efforts. The UN's Afghanistan team needs urgently to fill the long-empty post of gender adviser. Washington's Afghanistan team needs to appoint its own high-level gender adviser - and then listen to her carefully.

Channel significant resources to female-empowerment programs at all levels. Girls and young women need special help in education. Groups distributing aid should work with, and help to strengthen, women's mutual-support and political networks in all Afghan communities.

Use the winter months, while physical and political rebuilding are still difficult, to brainstorm with Afghan women on how they want their society rebuilt and how they want to contribute to that.

Plan for broad training in productive skills for the millions of Afghans who either have not had recent access to the workplace (women), or have acquired skills only in military arts (men). Demobilization and empowerment of women are parallel processes, and the groundwork for them can be laid now.

Budget serious bucks for all the above.

A tall order? Yes. Intrusive? Maybe.

But we have a historic opportunity to help Afghans shake off the shackles of their recent past - shackles of distrust, poverty, militarization, and misogyny. Either we work proactively with Afghan women and men to shake off those ills - or else, five or 10 years ahead, what further horrors should we expect for (and from) Afghanistan?

Helena Cobban is a veteran journalist and author of five books on international issues.