Stakes are high for Afghanistan's women, who fear their rights could slip away in a quick-fix bargain for peace, according to aid agency Oxfam. There is a risk that the Kabul government may sacrifice women's rights in its efforts to broker a peace deal with the Taliban, Oxfam says. The two sides are in talks to reach a political settlement to the Afghan war before U.S. and NATO troops withdraw in 2014. “Women activists in Afghanistan are quite fearful of this, simply because they've always been a minority voice,” said Mark Fried, policy coordinator for Oxfam Canada. The Canadian government and international community must push the Afghan government to keep women on the agenda “by publicly pledging that any political settlement must explicitly guarantee women's rights,” Oxfam says in a new report. It also urges that women be part of the peace process. “Raising the profile of the importance of women's rights could help guarantee that they can survive into a peaceful time,” Fried said. He sees the upcoming Bonn conference on Afghanistan's future as an opportunity for Canada to show its support as the international community meets Dec. 5 to discuss the handover of security from NATO to local forces. The Afghan government has a history of compromising women's rights to meet political ends, Oxfam says. In 2009, to win support from Shia hardliners ahead of elections, President Hamid Karzai approved the Shia Personal Status Law, which among its provisions allows men to deny their wives food if they refuse their sexual demands.
Women activists and parliamentarians fear they will be the Taliban's “first targets” if an eventual peace agreement ends up sidelining their rights, says Louise Hancock, Oxfam's Afghanistan-based policy adviser and co-author of the report. They have a “genuine fear that they would be killed if they continue to do their work,” Hancock told the Star from Kabul. Insecurity in the country is spreading, leaving women in greater danger than “even a year ago.” The Oxfam report says Afghanistan has made strides in women's rights over the past decade. But it warns these gains are at risk of being lost. The government enforces its Elimination of Violence Against Women law in only 10 of the country's 34 provinces. (The law criminalizes honour killings and child marriages.) It has also excluded women from the peace process. There are nine women on Afghanistan's 70-member High Peace Council, which is leading settlement talks with the Taliban. Hancock wants more than rhetoric from Canada and other countries, demanding “active guarantees” of their support. In response, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa says it will encourage the Afghan government to include women in the peace process at Bonn. “Canada will reiterate to all conference participants that any efforts to bring lasting and durable peace to Afghanistan must involve dialogue with all parts of Afghan society, including women,” Joffre LeBlanc, spokesman for the government's Afghanistan Task Force, said in an email.
LeBlanc says Canada has tried to improve the lives of Afghan women by increasing access to education and promoting their participation in local government. The Oxfam report also calls on the United Nations to monitor the peace process and to support the Afghan government in its negotiations. Calling the issue of women's rights in Afghanistan a “legitimate worry,” Kathryn White, executive director of the United Nations Association of Canada, says Afghanistan must honour UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which requires women to be fully involved in peace-building and reconstruction. “If Oxfam is flagging to us that this engagement of women may be eroding before we're even out of there … I think it's something we should pay attention to,” White said.