In Afghanistan, more peace and less war will help women

by Liza

Interview with Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy Analyst and External Relations Officer at Women for Women International. Bust previously spoke with Karen Sherman, the Executive Director of Global Programs and covered the organization’s recent fundraiser luncheon.

When teaching women about rights awareness, what are the rights they are usually unaware of having, or that they need the most help enforcing?

More so than men, women are often excluded from opportunities to access a full education. Especially in the developing world, girls are often either prohibited from attending school due to social or economic constraints, or pulled out early for marriage or to help with chores. This begins a pattern of overall social exclusion that often translates into marginalized women being unaware of their rights within either national or local/family law. This can be anything from their right to be free from violence—which is a huge issue in countries like Afghanistan or DRC—to their right to inherit property, in places like Nigeria where widows are often disinherited by family members of their late husbands.

How do you think recent military events (especially bin Laden’s death) will impact what you are able to do? Similarly, have events like the “Three Cups of Tea” scandal had any effect on the organization?

Military exercises are rarely good for women, but so too is security a concern especially for women; any action that could destabilize the overall security situation will surely have negative impacts for women as well. As the next chapter begins in the region, the emphasis will be less on war and more on how to build peace. Women can and should play a significant role in the peace building process.  As women around the world have demonstrated in conflict after conflict, they have the unique ability to negotiate the spaces for survival—keeping families fed, children educated and the ill and injured cared for—despite extreme obstacles. I believe that for Afghanistan, keeping women at the center of our next series of efforts to build peace is increasingly critical.

With regard to the Three Cups of Tea issue, Women for Women International is very fortunate in that our sponsorship model lends itself to clear evidence of our work, and we have not experienced significant negative repercussions from the “Three Cups of Tea” issue. 

We also believe that it is important to put policies and controls in place that help to safeguard against potential abuses, and we started the process of deepening those quite significantly in 2009. 

Women for Women International is not without its challenges, given the turbulent and difficult nature of the places where we work, but we are fortunate in that our leadership is committed to safeguarding the interests of our equally-committed stakeholders.

What do you think is the best way to get womens’ voices heard in the negotiations about the constitution? Is it the method of training sympathetic male leaders or is there a way to actually have women present at the discussion table?

Having worked with tens of thousands of women during and after conflict, we believe that women should engage in all the political, economic and social activities of their nations to become full participating members of their countries. We know that for many women, the end of conflict does not mean peace. In fact, many post-conflict recovery efforts prioritize the needs of men over those of women, or do not include women’s interests at all.  Spikes in violence and abuse have been associated with demilitarization, and sexual violence as a tool of war is often afforded impunity. Despite much research on the value women add to peace processes and international policy, such as UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888, and 1889, that codifies the critical role women conflict and post-conflict areas, implementation is lacking.  Yet, when raised, the concept of gender equality within peacebuilding is dismissed as quaint, unnecessary or culturally irrelevant and the needs and participation of women are overlooked.  We cannot achieve true peace without 50 percent of the population.

Once women have gone through your training, become more aware of their rights, gotten access to resources and a voice, what obstacles will they still face?

As a community, the women’s movement has been slow to engage men. Yet men are critical allies—and often the leaders of institutions, from politics to religion to family and community leadership—that can be primary obstacles to women’s rights and participation. So we also work with male leaders in communities around the world to provide them with an overview of how women’s education, economic participation and enjoyment of their rights helps build better, more prosperous communities for everyone. This is key to ensuring that the lessons women learn are able to be utilized and enjoyed in the broader family and community context.

What more, if anything, should the US military presence in Afghanistan be doing to help women?

The military is starting to think about how war affects women more than it ever has before. They have started using Female Engagement Teams to conduct outreach to women in communities, and the Pentagon is participating in the drafting of a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security that should outline some concrete steps for how the military will work to ensure women are protected and able to participate in peace processes and other mechanisms to build safer communities. However, it is also important to note that military exercises can be and have been particularly dangerous for women, so I think the answer is less war, more peace, regardless of who is participating—US military, NATO, Afghan National Army and Police. We want a world without armed conflict, a world without rape as a weapon of war, a world without mass displacement and loss–and women are key to that.

What do you hope to see for the future of women in Afghanistan, and what do you realistically think will happen for them in the next few years?

Today’s challenge is the ongoing peace negotiations between the Government of Afghanistan and representatives of the Taliban. Past promises to prioritize women’s rights in these talks have not been upheld. Many women supported the idea of reconciliation when it was first proposed and when it was thought the interests of the Afghan people—including women—would be represented in any compromise. Instead, an opaque process has commenced, one that is orchestrated by a High Peace Council of political appointees whose ten female representatives provide only a thin veneer of credibility to a behind-the-scenes discussion in which communication between Taliban and High Peace Council is about negotiation of power opportunities for Taliban representatives, not about the protection of women’s rights.

In order for Afghanistan to attain true peace, the peace process must reflect all Afghan people, including women. International laws such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) have codified women’s value to the peace process and committed Member States, including Afghanistan, to include women in all peace and reconstruction processes. Nevertheless, women’s participation on the ground remains limited. A firm commitment is urgently needed by the Government of Afghanistan and all international actors to ensure women’s substantive participation in the talks as well as the protection of women’s rights in any negotiated compromise.

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