SRSG Yamamoto op-ed: The time has come to close the gender gap in Afghanistan
KABUL - Gender inequality is the injustice of our age and one of the biggest human rights challenges we face. But gender equality offers solutions to some of the most intractable problems in Afghanistan. Everywhere across Afghanistan, women are worse off than men – simply because they are women. And the reality for some women – from older women, rural women and those with disabilities, to refugees and those internally displaced by the conflict, unable to access even basic services – is even worse.
While we have seen significant progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan, including formal legislation and national action plans, we continue to see powerful social and political pushback, both directly and indirectly. This situation must change for Afghan women, and for the benefit of Afghanistan as a nation.
Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power. Centuries of discrimination and deep-rooted patriarchy have created what the Secretary-General has called a gender power gap. Afghanistan is no different; the evidence of this is everywhere in Afghanistan’s social, economic and political systems.
Globally, women are excluded, if not impeded, from the top table, from government positions to corporate boards to prestigious awards ceremonies. Women leaders in Afghanistan face harassment, threats and abuse, online and offline. Women and girls in Afghanistan still contend with centuries of misogyny and the erasure of their achievements. They are prevented from going to school, relegated to performing menial work, ridiculed, judged on their looks, and confronted by everyday sexism, harassment and victim-blaming.
These are barriers to solving many of the challenges and threats that Afghanistan faces as a nation.
Globally, women and girls do some 12 billion hours of unpaid care work every day that simply does not figure in economic decision-making. If Afghanistan is to work for everyone, the country must base its policies on statistics that consider women’s true contributions, including their unpaid work in the agriculture sector.
The lack of gender balance in universities, start-ups and hotbeds of commerce in Afghanistan is deeply worrying and requires concerted and coordinated bridging solutions. These hubs are shaping Afghanistan’s future; Afghanistan cannot allow them to entrench and exacerbate male dominance.
Or take the war that has continued to ravage Afghanistan, exacerbating the challenges that Afghan women continue to face, especially in terms of violence and civil oppression. How Afghanistan treats the female half of its population, during and after conflict, is an indicator of how it will treat others.
Finally, political representation is the clearest evidence of the gender power gap. Women are outnumbered by an average of 3 to 1 in parliaments around the world. It is no coincidence that the governments that are redefining economic success to include wellbeing and sustainability are led by women.
Afghanistan has an opportunity to rectify the lack of women’s full representation in political decision-making. What is especially crucial in the period ahead is to focus on Afghan women’s representation and their effective participation in peace negotiations.
Following years of grassroots organizing and advocacy, Afghanistan’s government has made progress toward formally recognizing the strengths of women in democratic decision-making processes.
The recent agreement between the United States and the Taliban represents a crucial juncture for invigorating hundreds of women’s networks across the country to leverage those strengths in the interest not only of women’s equal representation in any formal intra-Afghan peace process but also in upholding, protecting and advancing Afghan women’s human rights.
Afghan women continue to play a role in encouraging community-level peace efforts. In many of these efforts, which have been backed by the United Nations, prominent Afghan women have come together to engage in discussions about political decision-making and peace efforts, and to reinforce the concept that social cohesion, at community and national levels, is fundamental to sustainable peace.
Anticipating developments that would open the door to intra-Afghan talks, the United Nations has been encouraging Afghan women’s advocacy groups to focus on developing strategies – on the basis of their work thus far – for the upholding, protection and advancement of the gains they have made in the social, political, civic and economic life of Afghanistan.
These strategies, backed by the United Nations and coupled with the growing recognition that women must be included in any formal peace negotiations, would yield results: country-wide and community-level ownership, along with the full and meaningful participation in political decision-making among all members of society.
It is abundantly clear that Afghan women must be an integral part of any formal peace negotiations. As has been proven time and time again in other contexts around the globe, women’s full and meaningful participation in peace negotiations greatly increases the sustainability of peace accords.
In the interest of continuing to support Afghan women’s representation by advocating for inclusive peace processes at national and subnational levels, the United Nations has been active in creating platforms for women to be a part of and lead discussions on peace, among a range of actors.
The United Nations has worked with women’s groups in Afghanistan to identify and apply creative ways for women to participate in conflict-resolution mechanisms that have not traditionally included them.
An important role for the United Nations in the period ahead is to continue to provide expert advice and technical support to Afghan women as they build coalitions and develop their roadmaps and strategies to participate effectively in peace talks, whether as part of formal negotiations or outside those rooms.
As Afghan women have experienced the conflict in ways different from men, their voices at the peace table are essential. Efforts of women’s networks across the country to organize and advocate for equal representation in peace talks should lead to women becoming members of formal peace structures, which would then lead to substantial results in peace negotiations.
The time has come to close the gender gap in Afghanistan, not just in any coming peace negotiations, but in post-peace arrangements, with real voice and agency, and in all aspects of Afghanistan’s social, economic, civic and political life.
Tadamichi Yamamoto is the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).