The endless violence and destruction in Afghanistan has been in world-wide news for at least 40 years. It is a country a bit smaller than Texas but with more people. A quarter of the population lives in urban areas while the rest of the people are mostly agricultural workers in the countryside. Almost all are Muslims, but they are divided into about 20 ethnic groups, each with a distinct language and culture which partly explains why it has been so difficult for them to unite into a modern nation. It is bordered by Russia (Communism), Pakistan (backing the Taliban), and Iran (backing Al Qaeda) and all have been involved in hostilities along with the US, the UK and Canada as part of the NATO peace-keeping force.
Some other details were filled in for me several years ago when I attended a CFUW Welland meeting and heard Murwarid Ziayee, then the National Director of Canadian Women for Women of Afghanistan (CW4WA) speak about her beautiful, mountainous homeland and what it was like for her as a woman raising a family to live there. The situation was even more dire than I imagined and with increasing threats whenever she left the house, she and her family had to emigrate to Canada. She ended her talk with ways women of the world could help: fundraise to help girls go to school and lobby our government to participate in the peace process. She stressed that the Afghan voice alone is weak and needs to be strengthened with that of international partners. Now with Zoom meetings available, it might be possible to have her or another activist speak to us in the future.
This past February, I registered for a joint Zoom meeting being presented by the GWI NFA2NFA* Partner Project between CFUW and GWI-Netherlands. Both countries have been active in learning about, discussing the issues and developing an Advocacy Tool kit. The topic was “The Significance of Ongoing Afghanistan Peace Negotiations for Afghan Women.” One speaker was Dr. Lauryn Oates, from Vancouver, who among her many titles is the Executive Director for CW4WA. She likened the plight of Afghan women to being “Canaries in the Coal Mine”. The maintenance of rights for women often determines the success of peace negotiations for the country. What is happening to women in Afghanistan is happening elsewhere in the world. The price for stopping the violence and killing is often the loss of women’s rights. The other speaker was Salma Alokozai, an activist and the CW4WA Country Director, speaking in the middle of the night from Kabul. They both described the unsatisfactory negotiations starting in February 2020 when the US actually signed an agreement to stop the violence during peace talks with the Taliban without the participation of the democratic Afghan government! Although promised, the Taliban refused to stop the campaign of attacks and assassinations, and between March and June the violence was the highest in the last 19 years. Many journalists, activists and women have had to leave the country. The Taliban want to change the Constitution to remove rights of many, including women, and the democratic institutions are in danger. The Taliban has not negotiated in good faith, and there is disaster in the offing if forces keeping the peace are removed too soon. Women could be forced to return to the dark days of Islamic apartheid, be incarcerated in their homes, required to wear veils, be accompanied by men, and be denied education, employment and health care. Their position is perilous because few women’s voices are heard at the peace table, and terrifying bomb blasts and gunfire prevail. Notably, the Taliban have included no women on their 21-member negotiating team. The Afghans have included four women on theirs, so of the total of 42 members on the complete team, only four are women!
Remarkably, despite threats, there are many women’s groups in Afghanistan that are joining forces and demanding that the negotiations result in peace with dignity. They fear that negotiations will result in trading rights for education for both girls and boys for lack of violence. The Taliban claim of support for education is belied by their actions. Many schools are presently closed in Taliban controlled areas. Although they recently threatened to restrict girl’s education to the third grade, they have backed away from that at the moment.
CFUW Ottawa has been learning about this human tragedy since 2010 when a small group of members were inspired by a talk given by Dr. Sima Samar, a human rights activist. They were shocked to learn the plight of women in her country, but also discovered that education was their hope. So, they formed a Study and Interest group called University Women Helping Afghanistan Women, (UWHAW). When Dr. Simar was asked what Canadians could do to help Afghan women, she suggested they share their campaign with other women’s groups. And the CFUW Ottawa Club has done just that. As they became more informed, they were invited to be speakers at local women’s organizations and other CFUW clubs. They have written to the Prime Minister and other senior Canadian officials urging Canada to play a leading role in the ongoing peace talks. They have presented seminars and workshops at National AGMs across Canada, at the GWI Triennials in Istanbul, Turkey and Cape Town, South Africa, and presented a Parallel Session at the 2014 UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
Along the way, GWI has been extremely supportive by highlighting their activities on their website and in their programme materials. The imminent need for international participation in the peace process resulted in the design of a six-month project replicating the process of the UWHAW but included working with other NFAs. The project got National approval and was accepted by GWI for the NFA2NFA platform. GWI-Netherlands asked to join them, and their first webinar was the one I described above.
The final webinar is on April 24, 2021 and will feature three remarkable Afghan women including one of the women peace negotiators, and a moderator from the EU. The GWI network can potentially reach 15,000 educated women in 75 countries! Those interested can replicate the project in their own club. As CFUW Ottawa says “We can use our GWI voices across our globe to strengthen those of the Afghan women. Together we can encourage our governments to hear these courageous and articulate women, and work with them and their government towards a permanent and just peace not only for these women, but for their daughters and granddaughters. These women, who have suffered through 40 years of war, need and deserve our support at this critical period. Let their voices be heard.” Watch for the invite link to register on the GWI website.
*(NFAs: National Federations and Associations are members of GWI. There is one NFA per country.)