A version of this post appears at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
There are universal truths we know about women and international development: The best investment a country can make in its future is in women and girls. A country’s treatment of women is one of the greatest indicators of that country’s success across nearly every metric, including economic prosperity, foreign relations and security. And when security in a country is threatened, weakened or in crisis, women, as oft-marginalized members of society, are the first to suffer.
These three concepts met in a discussion between Afghan Member of Parliment Farkhunda Zahra Naderi, and Melanne Verveer, U.S. Department of State Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues, at the Young Atlanticist Summit on Monday, May 21. The conversation was moderated by Benedetta Berti, an associate fellow and lecturer for the Institute of National Security Studies and Tel Aviv University.
The panel, Women, War, & Peace: The Impact of UNSC Res. 1325, was framed in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Adopted in 2000, UNSCR 1325 “reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security…It also calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict.”
Ambassador Verveer opened the conversation by positioning the topic in terms of NATO’s continued emphasis on women’s rights, as well as a growing global movement that recognizes the vital role of women in the political process. For example, she noted, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and pro-democracy campaigner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen in 2011. This action, Ambassador Verveer stated, recognized not only that women have a critical role to play in peace and security, but also that that role needs to be spotlighted. “Often, it’s an uphill struggle,” she added. “But yet, we see the difference that women’s participation has made in areas of conflict, out of conflict into peace making, and into post-conflict reconstruction.”
The United States must be a leader and an advocate of the importance of including women in decision-making processes, Ambassador Verveer continued. The United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, passed in December 2011, was accompanied by an executive order, which, among other things, served to “ensure that all of our efforts in this large area, whether the Department of Defense, Department of State or other agencies, that we are focused on ensuring that we’re playing the kind of leadership role we can, should and must play in including focus on women’s participation and issues of gender-based violence and sexual violence against women,” according to Ambassador Verveer.
As to the role of women, and women’s right, in Afghanistan, Ambassador Verveer’s response was concise and unequivocal: “If women’s voices as silenced, the likelihood for durable peace, stability and economic opportunity will be subverted in Afghanistan,” she asserted. “Advocating for women on these issues, if we want to advance progress around our world, is absolutely critical.”
While Ambassador Verveer spoke supportively about the NATO Chicago Summit Declaration, which reaffirms the importance of the inclusion of women in paragraph nine, it’s relevant to note that she took part in a panel at Amnesty International’s Shadow Summit. Held yesterday in Chicago, Ambassador Verveer, along with a number of other dignitaries, representatives and experts, emphasized the role of women in Afghanistan’s future, and brought attention to the fact that the protection and advancement of women’s rights was not an agenda item during the NATO Summit. Furthermore, it’s been argued that women’s rights are being used as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgent forces. For example, this past March, President Hamid Karzai endorsed a non-binding edict stating that, among other things, “men are primary and women are secondary,” women should avoid mingling with strange men in public spaces such as schools and the workplace, should respect polygamy, and should comply with Sharia law on divorce and “teasing, harassing and beating women.”
Those mandates, which President Karzai stated “reiterated Islamic principles and values,” would threaten to undo much of the progress cited by MP Naderi, who summarized the successes and challenges of women’s participation in government in Afghanistan. The constitution of Afghanistan, she noted, guarantees equal rights for women and men, and advocates for a “quarter system” of women’s participation in governmental bodies. In the Lower House of Parliament, 27 percent of members are women; in the executive branch, three of 35 ministers are women. “Despite all the shortcomings, what we have in two pillars of power – parliament and the executive branch – are a huge success for us,” she stated.
Yet, women have yet to break into the Supreme Court, which MP Naderi called the “greatest concern.” This absence causes Afghan women to worry about losing the ground for which they have fought over the past 10 years. And in the High Peace Council, only nine of the 70 members are women; this underrepresentation, MP Naderi reported, contributes to their continued marginalization, as those nine women are often unable to make their voices heard within this important council. “The core power exists within the Supreme Court, and if our Supreme Court at any time decides that the participation of women in other positions of power is symbolic, they can do it,” MP Naderi said, later warning, “Do not confuse participation with presence.”
These numbers brought the discussion back to UNSCR 1325, which can be used as a tool to ensure women’s involvement in key institutions. “Women must be included in political discussions and debates,” MP Naderi advised. “Don’t set up talks where women are excluded. Make our presence conditional for all the talks. Follow the letter and spirit of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and make sure that you do not exclude women from peace process…This has to be done immediately and cannot wait until our National Action Plan is completed.” By that time, she noted, countless important discussions will have taken place, and if women’s voices were not included, there will be significant ramifications.
During the Q&A portion, Ambassador Verveer briefly addressed a question about the inclusion of men—specifically, the delegate pointed out that too often, discussions about women’s rights are held by women and heard by women, with little, if any, participation by men. The question underscored an important point: it is crucial that discussions of women’s rights not be marginalized or segregated as a niche issue, but fully integrated at every level of the decision-making process and strategic plan.
Ambassador Verveer emphasized that women’s rights are not the “sole province” of women, though she allowed that “women often have to prod and say, ‘Look, more has to be done.’ Not just as a favor to women, but this is so essential to the outcome that women and men want to see for the benefit of women and men, boys and girls.” Later, she returned to this point about outcomes: “It’s hard to know,” she said, “how security and sustainability are able to be achieved if half the population is not involved in working toward those goals. No country can get ahead if it leaves half the county behind.” She addressed specifically the phenomenon of rape as a weapon of war, and how women in those conflict zones “desperately need care to be healed physically and psychologically.” Those kinds of issues, she reiterated, have to be addressed by societies in conflict.
In response to another question posed by a delegate, MP Naderi addressed the involvement of the Taliban in the peace process. “As an Afghan woman, I don’t have a problem with Taliban,” she stated. “If they want to come and be in Parliament…but express their views in a democratic way.” That said, she divides the Taliban: those who come to the Taliban because of ideological reasons, and those who came to the Taliban due to dissatisfaction with Afghan government. Though the former, she asserted, will never become participants in the peace process, in the later group, there is potential to build working relationships. Again, she underlined the importance of involving women in the conversations: “We want women to be at each step [of the peace process], so that when Taliban wants to come back, they have no choice but to cope with [the presence of] women.”
Based on discussions with my fellow Young Atlanticist Summit participants, both women and men, there were no lack of follow-up questions to be posed to the panel’s participants. As we have been repeatedly told during this summit, this group represents not just the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today. If this is true, then it is important the role of women in issues of peace, security, economic prosperity and other global issues continue to be raised in every conference, at every turn, rather than addressed in one panel out of many and then never broached again.
It’s often said in the business community that the full inclusion of women in the workforce and senior leadership positions is not just about doing a “nice” thing for women in the name of equality; rather, it’s about taking steps to achieve a better bottom line. In Afghanistan, the “bottom line” is the success of the country, and this will not reach its full potential unless women’s rights are given the full focus they deserve, and women are involved in this process at every juncture.