The NATO Summit taking place in Wales yesterday and today is the largest gathering of international leaders ever held in Britain.
With everything that’s going on in the world – Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Syria to name but a few – the world leaders attending will have a lot on their plate.
Afghanistan might not be right at the top of news headlines right now, but the future of Afghanistan is also on the agenda as the summit marks the end of 13 years of combat by international troops. The summit opened yesterday afternoon with a session on Afghanistan attended by US President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders.
But shockingly there were hardly any women in the room and with just one woman reported to be in the 10-strong Afghan delegation. Considering that improving the lives of women was one of the reasons given for going to war in Afghanistan, it’s hugely disappointing that women were not be part of those discussions on the future of the country.
Women must participate in talks
Less than three months ago at the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit in London, then Foreign Secretary William Hague, launched a strategy that said the UK government would ensure that women are “fully and meaningfully represented at any international peacebuilding event or summit hosted by the UK, by encouraging government delegations to fully include women representatives.”
In his speech he added: “And I am saddened that women and women’s groups still have to ask to be included at the negotiating table, as if it were a concession to be granted, or a right to be begrudgingly accorded, when in fact it is the only route to better decisions and stronger and safer societies.”
It’s not just a matter of respecting women’s rights – when women are involved in peace negotiations the outcomes are more successful. Recent research by ActionAid and Womankind found that women play a vital, if widely undervalued, role in conflict mediation, building trust and dialogue, educating children and counselling family members not to engage in violence across communities.
Despite this they continue to be side-lined by international institutions, that cannot, or will not, recognise their contribution. And the NATO summit is yet another example.
More needs to be done
Although some things for women in Afghanistan have got better in the 13 years since the fall of the Taliban, so much more needs to be done. Women in many areas can go out to work, girls can go to school, a law for ending violence against women has been introduced.
But the troop withdrawal poses serious a serious risk to the gains made. Women, particularly those who work to defend women's rights and those with jobs in public life, are being systematically targeted with violence in areas where the Taliban insurgency is gaining ground, while vital progress in women’s access to health and education is in reverse
In 2011 ActionAid carried out a rare survey of women in Afghanistan which found that nine out of ten were worried about the Taliban returning to government believing it would risk the gains made for women. They were particularly concerned about their daughters’ education. Three years later and with troops leaving, women are even more worried but also increasingly frustrated at not being listened to. That's why ActionAid was part of a No Women No Peace coalition stunt protesting about the absence of Afghan women at the NATO summit.
A stunt outside the NATO summit illustrating a lack of women's participation in peace conferences
ActionAid does a huge amount of work on women’s rights in Afghanistan, including training female paralegals who help women with legal issues including divorce, child custody and domestic violence. We also work with local decision making councils, known as jirgas, and have supported the creation of 180 Peace Committees across the country, including Women’s Peace Committees.
We train the members – 40% of whom are women - on conflict mediation, legislation, rights awareness, gender equality and the formal justice system. These committees are now the forum for the community to take their grievances to and have the authority to mediate conflict without taking it to the jirga, which often discriminate against women and in some cases condone and promote violence against women.
But such brave efforts by Afghan women to secure their rights and build peace at the local level must be complemented by efforts to ensure they have a voice and a space at the table of international peace negotiations too.