‘Building the third room’: towards peace and women’s dignity in future Afghanistan

Finding effective solutions to an armed conflict through negotiated settlement demands that each party seeks the common good, acknowledges critical differences, and provides space for the voices of victims of war and injustice. Examples of successful peace processes from South Africa to Colombia suggest the need for and recognition of common ground to achieve shared goals of peace and prosperity. While the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations offer hope for peace in Afghanistan, the future of women’s rights and dignity hangs in the balance as parties have yet to find common ground on many issues including women’s rights. The situation echoes a problem that Pope Francis expresses in Fratelli Tutti: in the current climate of Afghanistan, women are not treated with “the same dignity and identical rights as men,” but the recognition of their dignity is imperative for a just peace process. There can be no sustainable peace if women’s rights are ignored.

After over two decades of fighting, the United States and the Taliban reached a framework agreement on February 29, 2020 that called for the exchange of Taliban and Afghan government prisoners, the withdrawal of US troops in the country, and the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations on a comprehensive ceasefire and a future political roadmap for the country.

There can be no sustainable peace if women’s rights are ignored.

Since the framework agreement, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban have demonstrated mutual cooperation by exchanging prisoners and reiterating their commitment to the peace process despite heightened levels of civilian attacks and assassinations by the Taliban since February. Reuters reported more than 4,500 attacks in the first forty-five days since the signing of the Doha agreementa 70 percent surge compared to the same time last year. As the first scheduled face-to-face talks commenced in Doha on September 12, attacks rose again and sustained through December, increasing pressure on the government negotiating team to make progress on a political settlement. On December 2, the parties finally agreed to a set of procedures for future negotiations on political matters and the ceasefire. Though the negotiators returned to Doha last week to initiate the format negotiations following a brief recess, it is clear that the government and the Taliban remain divided on many issues. Both sides have failed to agree upon agendas for the negotiations. Most importantly, their respective visions for the future status of women in Afghanistan remain highly contentious.

Women’s rights in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s rise and control of Afghanistan in 1996 was a downward turning point for women’s rights and dignity in Afghan society. In the decades leading up to the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, women had been enjoying a steady increase in rights and freedoms; the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor reported that in 1977 women occupied an estimated 15 percent of the national legislature, and by the early 1990s they comprised 50 percent of government workers and students. However, beginning in 1996 under the Taliban women and girls were denied “access to education, employment, freedom of movement and health care” and subjected to “violence including public lashing or execution by stoning” according to Human Rights Watch. After the Taliban was removed from power in 2001, women in Afghanistan began to regain substantial rights. According to a World Bank report, by 2017 women represented approximately 28 percent of the national legislature, 35 percent of students enrolled in secondary education and 35 to 40 percent of voters in presidential elections. Among the 102-member House of Elders, the upper house of the national legislature, at least 50 percent of the thirty-four members appointed by the president are women, as stipulated in the 2004 constitution

Since 2001, Afghan women have also steadily become a larger part of the labor force in the manufacturing, agriculture, and service sectors. A 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation indicated the women’s labor force participation rate to range from 0.4 percent to 33.1 percent by province. However, the same report documented that women earned only 18.6 percent of household income on average, often due to women being paid less than men for the same work or work is unpaid like child care. These findings reflect that women occupy a growing role in the Afghan economy with the potential to make significant contributions if offered the same opportunities. This prosperity will only be made possible by a peace agreement that promotes women’s rights to education, financial freedoms, and representation in business and entrepreneurship.

It’s possible to create a third room—a middle ground room.

A central concern of Afghan women and international actors supporting women’s causes in Afghanistan is that this progress may be halted as the Taliban maintains their extreme position on women from their extreme religious beliefs. The finalized rules and procedures for the upcoming negotiations are silent on the demands of women, suggesting a weak position on part of the Afghan government. This could also reflect a tepid stance on the issue by the US government, which continues to play a key role in the peace process and holds the most leverage as an international actor.

While the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan has yet to receive explicit commitment from the Afghan government nor the United States as the most influential third party, the female representatives on the negotiation team remain unwavering in their pursuit of dignity and equal opportunity for women. (The government of Afghanistan’s negotiation team includes four women out of twenty-one representatives, while the Taliban’s team includes no women amongst their twenty-one representatives.)

A pioneering leader

One of the female representatives on the negotiation team, Fawzia Koofi, has served as a vocal authority on the topic of women’s rights in the intra-Afghan talks. As a prominent activist for women’s rights, member of parliament, and the first female political party leader in Afghanistan, Koofi is often the first to comment on the progress of the issue in negotiations. Since the onset of the peace process, Koofi has used her platform to advocate for elevated discussion of women’s rights and inclusion in the new political and governing structure of Afghanistan. On November 23 she called for the construction of a ‘third room— a metaphor she used to describe a space to bridge the divide between the government and the Taliban on women’s issues:

“We are in two different rooms, with two different views, but it’s possible for us to create a third room–a middle ground room; a room that is very difficult to decorate, a room that we have to really start from the scratch. That room has to be decorated with flowers of diversity: diversity in religion, diversity in ethnic, diversity of different schools of thought, political diversity, diversity of generation and women. I know that women’s rights cannot be – and the fundamental rights of humans cannot be–a trading factor in the peace negotiations . . . Now it’s time more than ever for us to build that common ground – that third room where everybody can see themselves.”

Koofi points to an important reality in Afghanistan today: the country is rich in ethnic, cultural, and intellectual diversity, and peace in Afghanistan depends on recognizing that diversity. A survey of 4,303 Afghan men and women in September of 2020 indicated that aside from a strong central government, women’s rights and equality among different groups were most often cited as very important policy priorities for the peace deal (84.7 percent and 84.4 percent of respondents respectively). If the Taliban are sincere in negotiating for the shared goals of sustainable peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, the promotion of diversity and protections of women’s rights must have a place in the Taliban agenda. Koofi’s solution reaffirms the importance of a holistic approach to resolving conflict that prioritizes the dignity of the human person—the precise mission of integral human development.

If negotiations in Afghanistan were to be conducted on the basis of the equal dignity of all persons, then opposing political ideologies would become secondary. Agreeing on this core principle—inhabiting this “third room”— would allow the Afghan parties to channel energies toward mutually shared prosperity.

Afghan women are determined to continue playing active roles in the ongoing negotiations. Their success is crucial for a prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan.

Sophia Henn is a Notre Dame senior majoring in economics and earning a supplementary major in peace studies through the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Madhav Joshi is a research associate professor and associate director of the Peace Accords Matrix in the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.

Photo: “Women’s Day in Dai Kundi Province” by ResoluteSupportMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Subscribe to Dignity and Development

Complete this form to receive a digest with new Insights.

Related Articles: