Three weeks ago I was sitting with General Mekmatshahi, Head of the Gender, Human Rights and Children's Rights Unit at Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior, in her sunlit office in central Kabul. The General was explaining her efforts to promote Afghan women's rights when her attention shifted to a news bulletin flickering on a screen in the corner of the room. Turning up the volume she shook her head as a Dari speaking eye witness described a scene of destruction wrought by yet another terrorist attack.
A suicide bomber had made it to the third floor of the police headquarters nearby before detonating, injuring six people and killing the Kabul police chief's office manager. General Mekmatshashi knew him personally. The room suddenly swelled with people and I asked whether we should suspend our meeting. She looked at me and said as though the answer was obvious, "This is Afghanistan, we go on".
As international military forces complete their transition out of Afghanistan and the country breathes a collective sigh of relief at the long awaited election of a new President and Government of National Unity, there is renewed optimism about the future of the war-torn country. Yet the risks and the challenges remain. Insecurity is still widespread, with large swathes of the country outside of government control. Senior government officials and prominent women – women like General Mekmatshahi – remain prime targets.
The advancement of women's rights has been held up as one of the most tangible gains of the intervention in Afghanistan, but these gains remain fragile - to both violence and political backpedalling. Undoubtedly, women have come a long way since the days of gruesome oppression they experienced under the Taliban regime. Yet in spite of improved education and health outcomes and new laws to protect women, the situation remains dire for the vast majority of Afghan women.
The toll of war, the continued existence of entrenched cultural practices such as baad (the exchange of women to end family conflicts) and the backlash against women's advancements, all cast a shadow over their future. But as the bombings continue, ironically it could be the peace process itself which poses a threat to women's rights.
I was in Kabul to meet government officials and women's rights activists about these issues for a new Oxfam report, Behind Closed Doors: The risk of denying women a voice in determining Afghanistan's future, published this week. Several of the women I met had risked personal safety and made enormous sacrifices to smash Afghanistan's iron clad glass ceiling and claim leadership positions within political and public life.
Their resounding message? Afghan women want a role in determining the future of their country.
As peace talks with the Taliban are expected to gain momentum, many Afghan women worry that their rights will be traded away for a political settlement. And these fears are not unfounded. Despite past rhetoric, negotiations and peace talks to date have taken place predominantly behind closed doors and without Afghan women's knowledge, input or involvement.
Oxfam has tracked 23 known peace talks held between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the international community since 2005. During talks between the international community and the Taliban, not one Afghan woman was involved in discussions; and during talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, women were present on only two occasions.
Without a seat at the table Afghan women argue their interests cannot be meaningfully represented. As prominent female MP Shinkai Kharokil told me, "If we don't decide, they will decide for us."
The long-awaited withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan must not be at the expense of the sweeping promises made to Afghan women. The continued support of the international community – including Australia – is essential to ensure that Afghan women's rights are enhanced, not eroded, as they threaten to be today.
Australia must protect its legacy on women's rights in Afghanistan by making a public statement of support for the essential involvement of women in the peace process at the London Conference on Afghanistan today (Thursday December 4) and by committing substantial long-term funding for the protection of women's rights and women's organisations.
After 13 years, billions of dollars and too many lives lost, the international community must fulfil its promises to Afghan women. As General Mekmatshashi stated as we wrapped up our meeting, "Afghan women have the courage, they just need the support."
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