Can Afghan and Syrian women ever be involved in the peace process or will it remain a pipe dream?
Fatima (not her real name) is a university student in Bangladesh. She had just finished her classes when she received a phone call from Afghanistan, her home country. The call would change her life.
“It was then that I learned they [the Taliban] murdered my father only because he supported me to pursue higher education. I am concerned about the safety of my other family members living in Afghanistan, and I do not know if the Taliban will let me live if I go back there,” she said, holding back tears.
“People in Afghanistan believe that a woman is born only to give birth and care for her children and husband. She should not be doing anything else. So, there is no point in a woman being formally educated.”
For decades, patriarchal norms and attitudes in Afghanistan have posed a significant challenge not only to the overall development of women but also to their participation in any constructive activity, not just peace-building.
With limited access to education and deliberate exclusion from decision-making processes exacerbated by this patriarchal mindset, it is unsurprising that the path before Afghan women to make any meaningful contribution to peace-building and conflict prevention is fraught with countless obstacles.
Between 2005 and 2020, nearly 80 percent of peace talks in Afghanistan have excluded women, with women participating in only 15 of 67 meetings and negotiations.
Despite this arduous path, Afghan women have played an important role in preventing violence and building peace with the help of some local and international organisations. They are involved, among other things, in raising public awareness about the importance of education and peace, women’s rights, and countering extremist beliefs.
“In Afghanistan, among other things, many women work for peace (albeit secretly in most cases). I, too, worked as a teacher for the UNHCR. I was involved in peace advocacy. I also helped organise seminars to raise public awareness about human rights,” Fatima said.
However, she believes that with the Taliban in power, many women will now be afraid to participate in similar activities.
“We have been fighting for our rights to participate in peace processes for years now, but after the Taliban takeover, I think anyone who dares to talk about peace will face brutal consequences, even death,” Fatima said.
From 1996 to 2001 under the Taliban regime, women were severely restricted in their movement, barred from working or attending school, and subjected to public beatings and executions. Most recently, it is widely believed that the Taliban have violated numerous human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, depriving them of education, work, freedom of movement and their clothing.
The situation is somewhat similar in Syria where women were either excluded from or sparsely represented in the initial Syrian peace talks. However, there has been a slight improvement in recent years.
In 2019 when the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee met in Geneva, women comprised 28 percent of delegates compared to a 2018 dialogue in Russia, which only had 15 percent of women delegates.
Women in Syria and Afghanistan share an unfortunate similarity: patriarchal attitudes and norms hinder their participation in peace-building and conflict prevention.
Abida (not her real name), a Syrian student studying in Bangladesh said: “Women in Syrian society are constrained by conservative attitudes toward their roles and participation in social and political activities. The idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen is very much normalised.
“While they are allowed to study and work on paper, men have a strong influence in their lives, and so, whenever a woman wants to work, she is often pressured to stay at home and be a good wife and mother. Had this not been the case, more women in this country could have played a much more active role in peace-building and conflict prevention.”
Despite these obstacles, women have contributed significantly to securing peace in local communities throughout Syria. They have played critical roles in several issues vital to long-term stability and recovery, successfully negotiated cease-fires in many areas, and led non-violent protests.
The under-representation of women in peace processes extends beyond Afghanistan and Syria. This reflects a horrid global trend. Women made up, on average, 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in key peace processes between 1992 and 2019 globally.
This is despite the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in 2000, under which all UN Member States are obligated to provide “equal participation and full involvement of women in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”
However, research suggests that the presence of civil society organisations, including women’s organisations, reduces the possibility of peace agreements failing by 64 percent. Also, agreements reached in peace processes involving women are more durable and better implemented. Gender inequality, on the other hand, increases the likelihood of terrorism and instability.
To facilitate greater participation of women in peace processes, the Centre for Peace and Justice at BRAC University, Bangladesh and UN Women Bangladesh established a student-led platform called Peace Café. It aims to nurture and mentor student-led civic engagement and social entrepreneurship activities for peace-building and social cohesion.
Peace Café is currently operating in five universities across Bangladesh. Its main goal is to empower students, particularly females, to promote peace, social cohesion, diversity, plurality, inclusivity, tolerance, and non-discrimination.
The organisation has provided skills training to 1067 students, organised 18 student-led initiatives for community welfare and several engagement sessions to create more awareness about their programmes. Peace Cafe does not intend to limit its activities to Bangladesh alone. It wants to collaborate with universities and organisations in other countries, particularly conflict-affected countries.
Fatima and Abida are both active members of Peace Café. They both believe their involvement has given them a better understanding of what needs to be done to overcome the patriarchal mindset in their respective countries and the role they can play in that regard if and when they return.
“First, we need to educate people about the role women can play in the country’s overall development, not just in protecting peace. Second, we have to raise awareness about their rights. Third, the international community should push the government to ensure greater accountability at all levels,” they said.
“Furthermore, governments, the private sector, and donors must arrange more funds for us. Last but not least, more women in government and key leadership positions are needed.”
Manzoor Hasan OBE is currently serving as the executive director of the Centre for Peace and Justice, at BRAC University. He tweets at @manzoor__hasan.
Arafat Reza is a research associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University.
Editors Note: In the story “International Women’s Day” sent at: 06/03/2023 09:36.
This is a corrected repeat.