Shukria Barakzai, a Member of Parliament in Afghanistan, says that justice and equality for women within the framework of the Afghan constitution must remain a "red line" in any negotiations with the Taliban. Pictured: Afghan men and women walk past an election billboard for Shukria Barakzai in Kabul on August 26, 2010. (Photo by Shah Marai/AFP via Getty Images)
While the world watches the Afghan government peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, the Trump Administration continues to roll out its signature initiative to advance the role of women in peace negotiations. Ironically, for the U.S. government and its noteworthy agenda on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), Afghanistan is where, as they say, the rubber meets the road. The world will know how serious the U.S. is about implementing WPS when we see how Afghan women fare in the coming months. That the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February promised a U.S. withdrawal of troops by May 2021, but did not address women's rights, may signal a bad start.
Over the past 19 years and three administrations, U.S. support has made an undeniably significant contribution to improving the lives of Afghan women and girls. There is abundant evidence across the board -- in women's political participation, economic opportunities, education, and health. But now, in the midst of the current political uncertainties in Afghanistan, and ongoing security issues, we seem to be witnessing a rush out the door, a push for ending America's "longest war", and a growing questioning about whether our support ever really made a difference in the first place.
Promote, the $216 million project in Afghanistan, touted as the largest "Gender Equity" program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has been called a failure and a waste of taxpayers' money. This program, launched during the Obama administration, is occasionally trotted out by leading voices as a significant contribution by the U.S. to the cause. However, as a 2018 report by the leading oversight authority on Afghanistan reconstruction has shown, the U.S. has relatively little to show for it.
Despite the "lessons learned" of the Promote boondoggle, the fact that women have gained a stronger voice and attained the remarkable progress they did, was due in large part to programs supported by the United States and our allies. A great example is how Afghanistan has been able to rebuild an education system that had basically stopped functioning. In 2001, about 900,000 students were in primary school -- almost all of them male. Today, more than 8 million students are in school, and though more must be done, nearly 40 percent of them are girls. The statistics tell the story. According to leading economist Lawrence H. Summers, educating girls "may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world."
While numbers are important, it is the human faces behind the work we can never forget: the young women journalists who produced the Emmy-nominated film "Afghanistan Unveiled"; Habiba Sorabi, the first woman governor in Afghanistan; the head of the Afghan Midwives Association who delivered 2,000 babies in secret during the Taliban regime... the list goes on. Some might regard these women as "exceptions to the rule" but in reality they are exceptional women who -- thanks to US support -- have worked long and hard to change the rules. And when they move forward, the rest of the world moves with them.
Our challenge now is to support our Afghan sisters in sustaining this progress and to make sure that their rights are not left on the negotiating room floor. As Shukria Barakzai, Afghan Member of Parliament, put it, justice and equality for women within the framework of the Afghan constitution must remain a "red line" in any negotiations with the Taliban.
Afghan women have proven themselves to be capable, resilient, courageous, and strong, but they need the continued help of the U.S. and the international community to sustain the progress made and to ensure that the protection of their basic human rights firmly remains part of the deal. With only four women (all from the Afghan team), out of a total of forty-two Afghan government and Taliban negotiators, the stakes have never been higher. The gains Afghan women have made could easily be reversed should the Taliban gain the upper hand in the current negotiations. Afghanistan is still considered one of the most dangerous countries in which to be born a woman.
The U.S. promise to Afghan women has been clear and consistent: "We are with you, we will not abandon you." Now, as America's "longest war" continues to wind down, we cannot afford to change that message to "Sorry, you're on your own."
Continued U.S. investment in Afghan women and their families is the right and strategic thing to do -- not just for Afghanistan but for our own national interests, those of our new allies in the region and for all of the Free World.
Charlotte M. Ponticelli is Senior Fellow at the American Council on Women, Peace, and Security, and former Senior Coordinator for Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Shea Garrison is Senior Fellow at the American Council on Women, Peace, and Security and Affiliated Faculty and Policy Fellow at George Mason University. Follow them on Twitter at @AC_WPS