Afghanistan peace process: 2020 presidential hopefuls owe Afghan women their support

Daniel Balson, Opinion contributor

It’s unlikely that anyone now running for president has ever met Nilofar Sayar. But if the candidates are serious about wanting one of the world’s most powerful jobs, every one of them owes her an explanation.

Nilofar is a women’s rights activist from Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province who promotes women’s inclusion in the decision-making processes and in peace negotiations. Her courage has come with a cost: Last year, she started receiving threatening messages and calls on her phone warning her that if she continues to speak out against warlords and armed groups in her province, her family would face grave consequences.

Not easily intimidated, Nilofar persisted with her advocacy. On June 12, 2018, her son disappeared. Two days later, his body was found by locals in a neighboring district. Nilofar tells us at Amnesty International that, while she has no doubt her son was killed in retaliation for her work, she still has no answer on who was behind the killing. Her repeated calls to the local police have gone unanswered, authorities have not launched an investigation, and she has continued to receive threats, even as she has been forced to leave her home city for the capital.

Now that peace talks between the United States and the Taliban have collapsed, the U.S. government has an opportunity to reevaluate what it owes to women like Nilofar. All candidates running for president owe her an answer, too. Unfortunately, during Tuesday night's Democratic debate, the plight of women in Afghanistan was not discussed.

Don't sacrifice women's gains

Despite tragedies like Nilofar's, the overarching story of Afghan women represents a rare bright spot of hope and empowerment amid an otherwise staggering bleakness.

Since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, Afghan women have made incredible strides. They occupy positions of power in the country’s military, police force, diplomatic servicebusiness community, government and in law. The Taliban’s rules that forbid women from working and girls from attending school have been repealed. Without doubt, progress for Afghan women and girls has been limited and uneven. Domestic violence is ubiquitous, child marriage is common and educational opportunities are scarce, but Afghan women have bravely taken their futures into their own hands.

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The plight of Afghan women has many causes, including political violence, cultural practices, endemic poverty and a government that is all too often unwilling to prosecute violence against women. Yet after nearly 18 years of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and hundreds of billions of dollars spent to support it, Washington has a responsibility to address the problem in which it played such a strong hand.

Afghan women team walk together in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2019.

Senior officials zealously condemned the Taliban’s treatment of women in the months before, during and after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Yet now that their suffering has been exploited to justify a war, the United States is apparently uninterested in helping them secure their rights in the peace process. The negotiations that did take place almost completely excluded Afghan women, who have time and again proved to be their own best advocates and a stalwart voice for peace.

Will America support Afghan women?

Indeed, Afghan women have had just as little luck accessing safety in America as they’ve had securing representation at the negotiating table in Afghanistan. While the most recent iteration of President Donald Trump’s travel ban for some Muslim-majority countries does not explicitly ban Afghans, the United States resettled a paltry 805 Afghan refugees in the 2018 fiscal year out of a total of 2.5 million worldwide.

Last year, the White House unsuccessfully sought to prevent victims of domestic violence from qualifying for refugee status based on their abuse. This president’s message to Afghan women is simple: You cannot build a safe future for yourself at home, and you cannot secure one here.

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Candidates for the presidency must set a standard of leadership by not forgetting the women of Afghanistan. Whoever wins next year's election must leverage a massive public platform to spotlight their lives and build solidarity, gathering a constituency for change, and strengthening efforts to fund an Afghanistan reconstruction strategy that puts women’s rights front and center.

Indeed, legislation such as the Afghan Women's Inclusion in Negotiations (WIN) Act, recently introduced in the House of Representatives, would do all of the above. All candidates should vocally support it.

Most important, they must promise that any future Afghan peace process will include the participation of Afghan women as stipulated in the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, signed by President Donald Trump.

Women like Nilofar will continue to work for a better Afghanistan. They will continue to demand access to education, medical care, and a future for themselves and their daughters that they will build themselves. The only question is whether they will have a champion in the White House or whether their plight will continue to be met with silence. Afghan women deserve better, whichever party or individual holds power in Washington.

Daniel Balson is the advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International USA. Follow him on Twitter: @EurasiaView

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: 2020 presidential candidates must protect women's rights