Women's experiences of the Afghan conflict are muted, sidelined and ignored, according to female expert researcher

Women suffer disproportionately from the violence plaguing Afghanistan. Their insights would be a valuable contribution to negotiations, and to sustainable peace in the country. But for that to happen, their voice needs to be accepted at the table, and not just under the label of 'women’s interests'.

Photo: Mariam Safi at United Nations Security Council briefing on International Women's Day, 8 March 2018, UN Photo / Loey Felipe

"The horrific attacks of 9/11 changed many lives. In various ways it changed the direction of my life and has propelled me to the position I currently occupy", says Mariam Safi, a researcher and active member of the civil society community in Afghanistan.

As a senior member of the Afghanistan Policy Group (APG), on 12 March Safi briefed the United Nations Security Council on current trends, conditions and key issues relating to the Afghan peace process. She took stock of the recent Second Round of the Kabul Process and highlighted in particular the role of women in contributing to peace and security. The Afghanistan Policy Group is supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and brings together leading civil society representatives, decision makers, scholars and journalists. It provides a neutral platform to discuss perspectives and strategies for constructive conflict resolution and to develop joint policy recommendations on issues of national and regional importance.

For our March issue, we asked Safi to share with our readers the story that led to her roles as expert to the APG and founder and director of the Afghan think-tank Organization for Policy Research and Development (DROPS). She also talked about the recent briefing at the UN Security Council, the role women can play in conflict regions, and the challenges women face in the arena of academic peace and security debates.

What formative moments and encounters set you on the trajectory to the position you currently occupy?

At the time of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York City, I was a high school student in Toronto, Canada where I was living with my family since we left Afghanistan in the late 80s as a result of the Soviet occupation. The horrific attacks of 9/11 brought Afghanistan, a country that had long been forgotten in the West, to the forefront of the war on terrorism. As a young student, I watched like many others the horrific images of the atrocities the Taliban had committed on the people of Afghanistan, especially the women. It was at that time I decided to pursue my BA and MA in the field of political science and conflict resolution, skills and expertise I believed would enable me to participate as an agent of positive change in the reconstruction of my country. I arrived back in Afghanistan approximately 10 years ago. In the beginning of my journey in Afghanistan, I worked for the Afghan-led Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, which allowed me to travel across the country and learn first-hand about the experiences, needs and wants of Afghans in relation to ongoing development and security efforts.

In the recent five years, I have dedicated my efforts towards establishing my own think-tank, the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS), which is based in Kabul and commenced its activities in 2014. It focuses on strengthening the pillars of democracy in Afghanistan through the development of policy-oriented research, youth training and advocacy through our Afghanistan Network of Women Thinkers and Researchers. Our aim at DROPS is to bridge the gap between the Afghan government and the public by becoming the medium through which nuanced research, studies and briefs, reflecting grassroots voices and perspectives can reach local and international policy makers to assist them in making better informed decisions on national issues.

What was your statement at the UN Security Council (UNSC) about? How did you come to these findings and what worries you the most with respect to the peace process and women’s rights in Afghanistan?

The perspectives I shared in my briefing to the UNSC was informed by the decade of consultation I have led as part of our research and advocacy efforts at DROPS. This included diverse sectors, community elders, policy makers, and the brave and resilient women of Afghanistan representing the government, private sector, and the public.

My statement to the UNSC was intended to highlight the current trends, conditions on the ground, and key issues relating to the Afghan peace process. I felt it was imperative to highlight how lethal the security situation has become in Afghanistan. The narratives outside of Afghanistan speaks of positive trends and vast improvements on the ground, and while this may be true in some sectors, it is not reflective of the current security situation in the country, which is deteriorating and having adverse effects on once improved sectors. It continues to hamper development efforts, is taking a heavy toll on civilian lives, especially those of women and children, and is still a leading motivation for the youth who are deciding to flee the country.

Additionally, with the Second Kabul Process and the Afghan government’s offer of peace to the Taliban, it has become imperative to once again highlight to the international community the value and importance of ensuring that any peace-making activity adhere to the key principles of: inclusion; respect for justice; development of a national consensus; and respect for transparency throughout the process. The peace agreement with Hizb-i-Islami showed that peace making is possible in Afghanistan. However, it also showed how easily these principles could be side-lined by the Afghan government and international community in the pursuit of that peace. Therefore, it was important to note that the agreement with Hizb-i-Islami may not be the model or framework we want to use when speaking of negotiations with the Taliban.

"Fundamental questions remain to be answered on the right time and the red lines for such negotiations, what justice could look like in an eventual settlement, how the rights of women will be upheld and protected and how participation of women on all levels will be guaranteed in the implementation and monitoring of any agreement reached, what the way forward will be after the peace agreement will have been reached, and, finally, what that peace will mean to different sectors of Afghan society."

When speaking of the peace process it is vital to underscore the inclusion of women’s voices and active participation. In the past, women have either been excluded or their voices have only been treated symbolically in the peace process. However, time has come to expand women’s roles from mere presence to active engagement, consultation and inclusion, as noted in the National Action Plan on UNSC resolution 1325, which Afghanistan adopted in 2015. Furthermore, the Afghan government has set no conditions for starting talks with the insurgency and has also opened up possibilities of amendments to the Constitution through a ‘Constitutional Provision.’ This means that any peace agreement could see both parties bringing some level of changes to the Constitution.

Any change to the Afghan Constitution would threaten the core values of our young democracy such as respect for human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. Therefore, it is imperative that women be present at the negotiation table to ensure their rights are protected. Additionally, spaces must be created for women to also have a voice in this process who are not formally involved in the peace process, such as civil society leaders, members of local councils, activists, academics, private sector and journalists. These spaces are currently shrinking in the country, thus it is more urgent now than ever before to act on these issues and prevent any roll back of the gains made since 2001. At the same time, we must also ensure that any peace framework or agreement developed is done so through the building of a national consensus—only will then the process result in a lasting and sustainable peace.

Thus, while there has long been a national consensus on the need for peace among Afghans, there still remain serious and different concerns on the best way forward on how that peace should unfold. Fundamental questions remain to be answered on the right time and the red lines for such negotiations, what justice could look like in an eventual settlement, how the rights of women will be upheld and protected and how participation of women on all levels will be guaranteed in the implementation and monitoring of any agreement reached, what the way forward will be after the peace agreement will have been reached, and, finally, what that peace will mean to different sectors of Afghan society.

In your eyes, what role can women play in conflict regions and/or in states where war imbues the life and everyday of people?

Just as violence affects women disproportionally, so will any peace agreement with the Taliban. Therefore, women can play several roles to achieve stability. Some of the roles women currently occupy in Afghanistan include women’s involvement in the security sector, government, parliament, civil society and media. However, in all of these areas women continue to face difficult obstacles and continue to be marginalized in both the numbers and the type of positions offered to them.

In some instances where women do hold positions of influence these positions are not supported with an enabling space or the necessary tools needed for them to carry out the responsibilities that come with those positions, therefore their voices tend to remain symbolic when it comes to key decisions.

The recommendations, informed by consultations DROPS held with women in five provinces across Afghanistan as part of the co-produced “Women, Peace and Security: Afghanistan-Pakistan Women’s Policy Brief,” in January 2017, can create better spaces for women’s voices in Afghanistan.

Policy-brief recommendations to achieve space for women’s voices in Afghanistan:

  • Young adult women area core group for investment of time, resources, and support, therefore it is important to promote context-specific peace building to these women.
  • Women have more influence in their households and it is crucial to educate them on peace-building. Specific institutions can target inaccessible women through other women in the community, using existing programmes and community-based networks to spread awareness.
  • Opportunities for women in the public space are shrinking due to physical and psychological insecurity caused by conflict. Therefore, it is crucial that the narratives and conditions are changed for women to allow them to express themselves more easily. This level of change would require reforms in how gender policies and strategies are implemented, as well as in education and the media.
  • The corruption that prevents resources from reaching women in poverty needs to be addressed. This requires reform in the allocation of assistance resources, as well as a reinforcement of accountability mechanisms.
  • Within state institutions, women must be included in decision-making processes. These women need to be supported by a policy-making toolbox that ensures that they and other women use policy research and advocacy to increase their voices.
  • Approaches to women’s participation in peace must be sensitive to local contexts. Traditional mechanisms of peace and conflict resolution already exist in Afghanistan, so it is important that they be drawn upon in these situations.

Would you agree that women face certain challenges in academic peace and security debates as these are usually considered to be an all men’s club? What can you tell us from a female perspective about your experience working in this field?

One of the greatest challenges for women in the academic peace and security debates is that women’s voices are limited and boxed within just gender issues or gender studies. The expectation is that women speak only on women’s issues, whether in the realm of security, economy or the peace process. Additionally, women are often the objects of research rather than the researchers or authors, therefore content produced in Afghanistan is often missing a critical gender lens. It is important for us to break this stereotype, and create spaces where women can write, research and offer their analytical perspectives on a range of issues, as academics and experts.

"Currently, the state, international actors, academics and practitioners alike categorize women’s perspectives as one homogeneous stance that is in line with mainstream narratives on peace and security matters, while ignoring those that counter these narratives"

At DROPS, we broke this stereotype when we developed the first Women and Public Policy Journal in Afghanistan. We have so far published three volumes of our journal, in which women academics, researchers and experts representing various fields have provided analytical papers on a range of issues such as democratic governance (vol. 1), Afghan Economy in the Decade of Transformation (vol. 2), or the Afghan Peace Process (vol. 3).

What in your eyes is the role of a female voice in security debates? Why do you think is it important to consider the gender dimension in security studies and debates?

Women are affected by violence and insecurity in society in different ways compared to men. Their different experiences give them different perceptions and assessments of the challenges caused by ongoing violence and conflict. This includes different prescriptions and solutions of how to tackle those challenges. These insights are crucial if the state is to create sustainable means to counter, mitigate and prevent the root causes of conflict. However, in promoting the role of women’s voices in security debates, it is critical to ensure that all those varied voices are considered.

Currently, the state, international actors, academics and practitioners alike categorize women’s perspectives as one homogeneous stance that is in line with mainstream narratives on peace and security matters, while ignoring those that counter these narratives. We must ensure that spaces are created where differences in perspectives are respected and considered, and none are ignored or side-lined. ###

Read Mariam Safi’s full statement here. For more information on the Afghanistan Policy Group and the work of FES in Afghanistan contact Mirco Günther, director of the country office in Kabul.



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