Afghanistan: Analysis of the work of the Security Council (2018 – 2020)

By Natalie Bracco

The landscape for women’s rights in Afghanistan is defined by discrimination and inequality underpinned by patriarchal political, economic and socio-cultural structures that prevent women and girls from obtaining full and equal access to education, employment, adequate healthcare and participation in public life, all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Afghan women continue to endure challenges to their full, equal and meaningful participation in the peace process and elections. In the context of the current peace processes, the return of the Taliban further warrants considerable alarm given that women and girls are already navigating “a patriarchal society deeply hostile to equal rights for women.”

The Security Council has been discussing the situation in Afghanistan for several decades. Although its attention to women’s rights and participation is better when compared to other country situations, it remains superficial and simplistic — these issues are treated as add-ons, rather than as central to core peace and security considerations.

The NGOWG’s past analysis on the Security Council has found that the extent to which gender equality issues factor into the Council’s discussion on a country situation often depends on how prominent those issues were in media reports about that conflict situation, along with additional high-level and high-profile political expressions of support by UN senior officials. These factors are all at play in the context of Afghanistan. In addition to the numerous media reports on women’s rights in Afghanistan, high-level efforts that highlighted the role of women include the January 2018 Security Council field mission, July 2019 high-level solidarity mission and subsequent Security Council briefing, June 2020 Arria-Formula meeting on the participation of women in the peace process, and the November 2020 Arria-Formula meeting on the peace process in Afghanistan. Additionally, the Security Council has heard directly from women’s rights activists and peacebuilders in March 2018, March 2019, June 2019, July 2019 and October 2020, and further discussed Afghanistan in the context of meetings of the Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security (IEG on WPS) in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Informed by the work of the NGOWG’s partners, recently published research and scholarship,[i] and NGOWG analysis of the work of the Security Council over the past two years, this brief highlights three key dimensions of the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda that remain inadequately addressed:

  • Women’s meaningful participation in peace processes;
  • Women’s equal participation in elections; and
  • Violence targeting human rights defenders, peacebuilders and journalists.

Women’s meaningful participation in peace processes

Between 2005 to 2020, women were excluded from 52 out of 67 peace and political processes in Afghanistan.[ii] Where women did participate, it was often the result of sustained advocacy on the part of local women’s rights networks coupled with international actors’ efforts. There are several reasons for this exclusion, including structural barriers due to men’s dominance in the political and government institutions from which participants in the peace process are drawn and societal barriers that promote harmful gender norms that prevent women from taking active leadership roles in public spheres.

The current peace process, the intra-Afghan peace talks, began on 12 September 2020, marking a critical moment in efforts to move toward peace and stability. The participation of diverse Afghan women in the peace talks has received high-level public attention throughout 2020; as of 1 October 2020, three women are on the Afghan government’s negotiating team and no women are on the Taliban side. Unfortunately, neither party to the conflict has demonstrated that they are willing to prioritize women’s participation. The Afghan government, despite public statements, has been unreliable in its support. For example, the government did not support an increase in women’s involvement in bodies such as the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC). Formed in September 2010 to pave the way for eventual peace discussions, the HPC was comprised of 70 members upon its establishment, out of which only nine were women. Before its dissolution, Afghan women accounted for a mere 26% of HPC members. In the Ministry of State for Peace Affairs, which eventually replaced the HPC, as of January 2020, there are only two female members. The Taliban have stated that they will protect women’s rights,[iii] but their actions over the past 40 years, including the ongoing, persistent, and widespread violations of women’s fundamental human rights as laid out in the Afghan constitution and international human rights law, contradict this. In the areas they control, the Taliban forbid most girls from accessing education after pubertyand severely limit women’s mobility and access to information.

The extent to which women’s participation is currently discussed in the Security Council is undoubtedly influenced by the elevation of women’s rights in Afghanistan in media, but also in sources of information flowing into the Security Council. These sources include briefings by women civil society representatives, meetings of the Security Council IEG on WPS, and discussions of the UN Group of Friends of Women in Afghanistan.[iv]Recent positive steps taken by the Council include adding language on women’s meaningful participation in the mandate (OP 5f) of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) renewed in resolution 2489 (2019). This language was maintained in the most recent mandate renewal in September 2020 in resolution 2543 (2020).  Also, in resolution 2543 (2020), the Security Council added a new preambular paragraph reinforcing the importance of ensuring women’s participation, and notably, acknowledging that their rights must be protected in the outcome.

Despite the rhetoric on women’s participation, NGOWG analysis shows that women’s participation is typically siloed and generalized. For example, in reports of the Secretary-General, references to women’s meaningful participation tend to focus on the number of women in the room, rather than barriers to women’s inclusion. Out of 70 references to the peace process across the Secretary-General’s reports from 2019 to 2020, only 20% of the references (about 14 of the 70), contained WPS elements. Outside of specifying the need for the Afghan government to have an inclusive negotiating team in his March 2020 report, the Secretary-General did not provide any recommendations on ensuring women’s meaningful inclusion in all aspects of the peace process.

Women’s equal participation in elections

Between 2018 and 2019, Afghanistan held both its parliamentary and presidential elections. Women’s participation as candidates, voters and poll workers during these elections was undermined and often targeted by acts of violence. Women candidates were targeted with threats and harassment, which is all too common for women worldwide when running for public office. During the run-up to the 2018 election, an attack on a rally of one candidate, Nazifa Yousef Bek, killed 22 people and wounded 35 others. Leading up to the elections in 2019, the Taliban continued to threaten and attack Afghan women to deter them from voting, including by warning of their intent to interfere with the elections. On polling day, the Taliban closed roads to prevent voters from accessing polling stations, placed improvised explosive devices near polling stations, and fired mortars, rockets and grenades on polling stations, contributing to at least 100 incidents of election-related violence. Afghan women also faced restrictions on their movement and additional costs while procuring voter ID cards in compliance with the Afghan government’s requirement that all voters be photographed at polling stations ahead of the elections. This measure discouraged Afghan women from conservative, rural areas and the Pashtun ethnic group from voting. As a result, in 2019, women’s participation as voters was significantly lower than men’s and significantly lower than previous elections — for the 2014 presidential elections, women comprised 38% of the voters, compared to only 20% for the 2019 presidential elections.

Over the last several years, issues related to women’s participation in elections have been discussed by the Security Council, but often broadly, without specificity or as an add-on. For example, in statements delivered by Security Council members, only 16% of the references to the elections overall included a specific reference to women’s participation; references made were often broad statements of support for women’s participation, without specific details or calls for action. Although some Council members referenced the need for voter security before the elections, few discussed the connection between enhanced voter security and women’s safe participation.

This lack of action on the part of the Security Council reflects the lack of information flowing into the Council via Secretary-General reports, although not the information that the Council received via briefings from civil society. Two civil society briefers, Sima Samar and Jamila Afghani, did draw attention to the disproportionate violence Afghan women repeatedly experienced when trying to exercise their right to vote in any election, and discussions within the IEG on WPS also discussed this as an essential issue.[v]  However, of the 91 references the Secretary-General made to election processes over the past year, only about 12% mentioned WPS. Although the Secretary-General warned against attacks on civilians and polling stations before the elections, he did not address how women would be disproportionately harmed by these attacks and did not recommend a plan of action for stakeholders to mitigate targeted attacks on women before and during election day.

Violence targeting women peacebuilders, human rights defenders and journalists

The context for women human rights defenders and peacebuilders in Afghanistan has considerably deteriorated, and has been reported to be at its worst in recent weeks. Women continue to be at risk for targeted violence, including sexual violence, when they take on roles in public and political life.[vi] Women human rights defenders and peacebuilders face constant threats and attacks, particularly if they work on women’s rights, from both the government and non-state armed actors due to their work and the perception that they are defying societal norms and thus present a threat to patriarchal institutions and structures. The violence includes enforced disappearance, killings, as well as sexual harassment and sexual violence. High-profile incidents include the shooting of Mena Mangal, a prominent female journalist in Kabul in 2019, the attempted assassination of Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, in August 2020, and the recent killing of Malala Maiwand, a journalist and activist.

In its discussions on Afghanistan, the Security Council continues to overlook violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, targeting women human rights defenders and peacebuilders despite multiple recommendations by briefers regarding the need for protection mechanisms for women journalists and human rights defenders. This oversight is in line with the broader failure of the Security Council to discuss issues related to sexual and gender-based violence in Afghanistan more broadly. UNAMA has been in operation for more than 20 years, yet the first time sexual and gender-based violence was added to its mandate was in 2019 with the adoption of resolution 2489 (2019), following briefings by women’s civil society briefers throughout 2017 and 2018, during which gender-based violence was raised multiple times.[vii]

Recommendations

The Security Council must center its work on the situation in Afghanistan by consistently addressing the drivers of conflict, including gender inequality, rather than only the conflict’s impacts. In all discussions and adopted outcomes, the Council should:

  • Insist on women’s rights and full, equal and meaningful participation in the current peace talks: The Security Council must call for women’s rights and women’s full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership in formal, substantive and specific roles at every level of the peace process, incuding at the local level in provincial councils. Women must be included at all stages and all levels of decision-making – in the pre-negotiation phase, in ceasefires, in the peace process and in implementing and monitoring any resulting peace agreement. Any logistical, technical, legal, accessibility-related and financial barriers must be addressed and removed.
  • Call on all parties, including the Taliban, to ensure respect for women’s human rights, civil liberties and citizenship, including by preserving all constitutional protections for women’s rights: The human rights protections, including all political, economic and social rights, as provided for in Chapter 2 of the Afghan Constitution must be protected unreservedly and fully upheld in any eventual outcome.
  • Ensure safety of women leaders, peacebuilders, human rights defenders and activists: Prevent threats and violence aimed at deterring their participation in peace and security processes, including by elevating their role in promoting peace and human rights. Regularly highlight the importance of ensuring an enabling environment for women’s civil society, peacebuilders and human rights defenders, including by utilizing influence in supporting civic engagement and activism, accessibility in peacebuilding spaces, and financial support for building the capacity of women’s movements.

 


[i] For detailed research and analysis on women’s rights in Afghanistan, see the following for further information:
APPRO.  (2019).  Fragility  and  Making  Peace:  Rights  of  Afghan  Women  and  Peace  with  the  Taliban. http://appro.org.af/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019-05-01-Fragility-and-Making-Peace-Rights-of-Afghan-Women-and-Peace-with-the-Taliban-1.pdf
Ahmed-Ghosh, H. (2015). A History of Women in Afghanistan: Lessons Learnt for the Future or Yesterdays and Tomorrow: Women in Afghanistan, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 4(3).
Amnesty International. (2015). Their Lives on the Line: Women human rights defenders under attack in Afghanistan.https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/Submitted after 2015-05-11T11 24 35/ASA1112792015ENGLISH.PDF
Duncanson, C., & Farr, V. (2019). Testing the WPS Agenda: The Case of Afghanistan. The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace, and Security.
Kouvo, S., & Levine, C. (2018). Who Defines the Red Lines?: The Prospects for Safeguarding Women’s Rights and Securing Their Future in Post-Transition Afghanistan. The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Conflict.
Samar, S. (2019). Feminism, Peace, and Afghanistan. Journal of International Affairs, 72(2), 145-158.
Singh, Shweta. (2020). In between the ulemas and local warlords in Afghanistan: critical perspectives on the “everyday,” norm translation, and UNSCR 1325, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 22:4, 504-525.
UN Women. (2020). Gender Alerts on COVID-19 in Afghanistan series. https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/06/gender-alerts-on-covid-19-in-afghanistan-series
UN Women. (2020). Women and peacebuilding in Afghanistan Post-2001: Analyses and Lessons Learned. https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/12/women-and-peacebuilding-in-afghanistan-post-2001 
UNAMA. (2020). In search of Justice for Crimes of Violence Agsinst Women and Girls. https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/in_search_of_justice_for_crimes_of_violence_against_women_and_girls.pdf
WILPF. (2020). Afghanistan: Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. https://www.wilpf.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Submission_Afghanistan_CEDAW_Feb2020.pdf

[ii] For in-depth analysis of women’s participation in peace processes in Afghanistan, see the following for further information:
Afghan Women’s Network & Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace. (2020). Afghan Women Leaders Peace Summit 2020: Declaration. http://awn-af.net/index.php/cms/download/1734
Azadmanesh, S. and Ghafoori, I. (2020). Women’s participation in the Afghan peace process: A case study.https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2012E-Womens-Participation-in-the-Afghan-Peace-Process.pdf
Cameron, E. & Kamminga, J. (2014). Behind Closed Doors: The risk of denying women a voice in determining Afghanistan’s future. Oxfam International. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/behind-closed-doors-the-risk-of-denying-women-a-voice-in-determining-afghanista-335875
Haines, R. (2020). Social inclusion in fragile contexts: Pathways towards the inclusion of women in local governance – Perspectives from Afghanistan. CARE. https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/social-inclusion-fragile-contexts-pathways-towards-inclusion-women-local
Inclusuvie Peace. (2020). Women in peace and transition processes: Afghanistan (2001-2005). https://www.inclusivepeace.org/content/women-peace-and-transition-processes-afghanistan-2001%e2%80%932005
International Crisis Group. (2020). What Will Peace Talks Bode for Afghan Women?. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/what-will-peace-talks-bode-afghan-women
Kamminga, J. and Zaki, A. (2016). Women, Peace, Security and Justice in Afghanistan after Brussels and Warsaw –Setting the Scene for a Technical Research Agenda. Retrieved 15 July, 2020 from http://www.jorritkamminga.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/A135_JK_ON.pdf
Larson, A. and Coburn, N. (2020). Solidarity, Strength and Substance: Women’s Political Participation in Afghanistan. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2004E-Solidarity-Strength-and-Substance.pdf
Larson, A. (2016). Women and power: mobilising around Afghanistan’s Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. https://www.odi.org/publications/10299-women-and-power-mobilising-around-afghanistans-elimination-violence-against-women-law
Oxfam International, et. al. (2020). Because She Matters: Ensuring women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding in Afghanistan. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621047/rr-because-she-matters-afghanistan-peacebuilding-150920-en.pdf
UN Women. (2020). Women and peacebuilding in Afghanistan Post-2001: Analyses and Lessons Learned. https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/12/women-and-peacebuilding-in-afghanistan-post-2001

[iii] See the following for further information: New York Times, The Taliban Promise to Protect Women. Here’s Why Women Don’t Believe Them, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/13/video/afghanistan-women-taliban.html; Kosev, Peace Steeped in Patriarchy: Bringing Women into Afghan Negotiations, 2020. http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/peace-steeped-in-patriarchy-bringing-women-into-afghan-negotiations/; Barr, Analysis: A crucial moment for women’s rights in Afghanistan, 2020. https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-03-04/analysis-crucial-moment-women-s-rights-afghanistan  

[iv] IEG on WPS, “Summary of Meeting on Afghanistan Held on July 10th 2019. S/PV.8481; S/PV.8485; S/PV.8555; S/PV.8587; S/PV.8620; S/PV.8687; S/PV.8742; S/PV.8587

[v] S/PV.8587, p. 6; S/PV.8555, p. 5.

[vi] S/2019/193; S/2019/493; S/2019/703; S/2019/935; S/2020/210; S/2020/549.

[vii] S/PV.8481; S/PV.8555; S/PV.8587