Women and Statebuilding in Afghanistan – The Diplomat


A few days before the G-20 summit, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, called on the international community to help prevent the collapse of the Afghan economy.

Afghanistan’s budget last year was $ 5.5 billion; nearly 80 percent of it was funded by the United States and other international donors. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August, that funding eroded, even as half of the Afghan population remains dependent on aid. Households and businesses find it difficult to access bank deposits due to limits imposed by the central bank on the withdrawal of US dollars and local currency.

It is evident that the Taliban rulers inherited an Afghanistan different from the one they ruled before the US-led invasion in 2001, and so far they have demonstrated neither financial proficiency nor political design. to support the economy.

With organizations such as the World Health Organization warning of the collapse of the health system, the perilous state of the Afghan economy has raised new concerns about a possible mass exodus of refugees to Pakistan and Iran, to Turkey, then to Europe.

It is heartwarming in these circumstances that at the summit of the G-20, the world’s richest economies have committed and resolved to channel aid through the United Nations to contain the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Previously, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced an aid plan for Afghanistan worth nearly $ 1.15 billion.

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Broken promises lead to broken dreams

While donors have provided financial support to avert an immediate disaster, will international actors facilitate the revival of political and institutional processes that can lay the foundations for a resilient society?

Countries withdrawing from Afghanistan have shown their willingness to exert influence over the Taliban, based on the militant group’s need for help and its desire for international legitimacy and recognition. But the main challenge here lies in the limits of political will, especially with regard to women’s rights. Women’s political participation in state building is an important lever of control that concerns aspects of fragility such as insecurity, poverty and corruption. Separating gender from power relations can unintentionally delay improvements in women’s rights and political participation.

Even during the two decades of international presence in Afghanistan, countries engaged in rhetoric in favor of women’s rights but rarely lent political capital. Despite the lack of nuanced political capital, the current generation of Afghan women and girls believed that the dark shadow of the Taliban would remain trapped in their mothers’ past. They are now, sadly, faced with the frightening reality of being robbed of their future. The international community’s commitment to the rights of Afghan women is currently at risk of failure. Today’s response will shape the trajectory of gender dynamics in Afghanistan into the future.

The cracks are deep

International aid donors need to rethink how they approach gender in statebuilding policy. When women have limited access to state institutions, their ability to transform power relations, political processes and the relationship between state and citizens is also limited. Research shows that post-conflict scenarios present new opportunities for women to mobilize. But as Afghanistan remains in a state of conflict, women’s ability to participate in state-building processes is limited both by structural barriers and by Taliban doctrine.

Under the Taliban rule in the 1990s, Afghan women and girls lacked access to education, employment and public life. After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, significant progress was made in Afghanistan to strengthen women’s rights and political participation, with the 2004 Constitution guaranteeing women two seats for each province in the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly. As a result, 27 percent of the total seats were held by women. A decade later, Afghanistan adopted its first WPS National Action Plan which aimed to increase the meaningful participation of women in decision-making and executive levels of the civil service, as well as in security, peace and reintegration, and strengthen the active participation of women in elections. More recently, during the 2020 intra-Afghan peace talks, the 21-member Afghan government delegation included four women.

After the Taliban took control of Kabul in August, the threat to women’s rights is palpable despite promises from the Taliban that they will be upheld by Sharia. Since taking power, the Taliban have invoked temporary security measures to ban women from working and delay their return to public schools and universities. Kabul City Government employees have been ordered to stay at home, with the exception of those whose positions are cannot be filled by men. The Taliban cabinet, announced last month, also does not include women. In addition, the Taliban replaced the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, established in 2001 to promote the rights of Afghan women, with the Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, historically known to apply a harsh interpretation of the sharia. This disparity between the Taliban’s rhetoric in press conferences and its internal decision-making on women is fueling concerns that the group is paying lip service to women’s rights to seek international legitimacy and recognition while bypassing these rights in practice.

Any expectation that the Taliban will be a political force including women is wishful thinking. But understanding gender inequality as politics and being aware of the multiple barriers that exclude women from politics, especially in fragile states, can help donors gain nuanced support.

Personal is political

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When the relationship between the state and citizens is fragile, the consequences are profound for women. Not only do women experience conflict and violence differently from men, but excluding women from state building increases the risk of future conflicts. Therefore, donor interventions must take into account the complex relationship between gender inequality and insecurity to be effective.

Addressing a high-level United Nations ministerial meeting a month after the takeover of Kabul, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia drew attention to five key areas for action in Afghanistan. Among these was the need to “lobby as firmly as possible for the protection, reintegration and upliftment of women leaders”. Responsibility does not stop with making room for women, but also with equipping them to act effectively once in power, supporting coalitions between women politicians and linking women politicians to movements in society. civil.

In addition, to facilitate meaningful political participation of women, it is necessary to go beyond simple balancing number men and women involved in institution building. If gender balance becomes an end in itself, rather than a step towards greater reform, women can get a seat at the table. However, their ability to question or transform accepted practices will remain paralyzed if the nature of their inclusion remains peripheral and stereotypical. For example, arguments for including women in peacebuilding often conceptualize women as “natural peacebuilders”.

Katrina Lee-Koo, associate professor of politics and international relations at Monash University, observes that such approaches base women’s demands for political power on pre-existing stereotypes rather than a claim for rights. This, she says, is problematic because when women fail to embody these constructs, they can again be easily taken out of the safety discourse. Moreover, when their inclusion is facilitated by such assumptions and stereotypes, women may capitulate to pre-existing structures rather than mainstreaming gender into rebuilding institutions.

For example, a document from the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) notes that the presence of female peacekeepers makes their male counterparts “more thoughtful and more responsible.” However, research indicates that female peacekeepers are often reluctant to report sexual abuse perpetrated by their male colleagues, succumbing to pressure to fit into an already male-dominated space.

Action plans developed under United Nations Security Council resolutions prioritize women’s rights and gender equality in statebuilding work. Unfortunately, in many cases these priorities are only weakly integrated into a larger policy and are most often seen as stand-alone commitments. As a result, gender issues are rarely on the shortlist of strategic priorities.

When addressed, it tends to be in the context of separate programs focused on sexual violence or health issues rather than as part of broader policy-related interventions. The donor focus on problem-oriented assistance is important, but the impact is limited if women cannot participate at the highest political level and shape the political agenda. As the world helps Afghanistan fight hunger and the collapse of its health care system, it is important to keep in mind that women’s rights risk becoming politically orphaned.


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