US Lawmakers Call for NATO Chicago Discussions to Focus on Afghan Women

   •    May 18, 2012

Members of the Afghan women's task force seated around a table

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), third from left, and Donna Edwards (D-MD), second from left, listen as Hasina Safi, first from right, shares Afghan women’s perspectives on peace negotiations and the transition. The congresswomen had invited Safi and other Afghan Women’s Network members to participate in the launch event of their task force, pictured here, in June 2011. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office)

When President Barack Obama addressed the American public from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan earlier this month, he had a message for Afghans as well: “As you stand up, you will not stand alone.”

As NATO heads of state and other world leaders make their way to the President’s hometown, US lawmakers, men and women from both sides of the aisle, have pledged to stand alongside Afghan women throughout the security and political transitions that are essential for the country’s future stability—and they want NATO member countries to do the same at their upcoming summit in Chicago.

In a letter [PDF] to the President, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Donna Edwards (D-MD), co-chairs of the Afghan Women’s Task Force, expressed their concern that the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces and the corresponding withdrawal of international troops could have a negative impact on women’s security and participation in public life. At Chicago, they wrote that NATO member countries should reaffirm their commitments “to support important rights of Afghan women, including freedom of movement, full participation in public life, freedom from violence, access to government services, and security.”

The co-chairs were joined by 26 of their House colleagues, including Reps. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Anne Marie Buerkle (R-NY), and Russ Carnahan (D-MO).

The matter of women’s inclusion in the security transition was raised by members of all political stripes on the other side of the Capitol as well. In a letter [PDF] to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Sen. Bob Casey, a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and 10 of his colleagues called for NATO member countries to support a “responsible transition” where the “continued safety and mobility” of Afghan women is seen as “a critical indicator of the transition’s success” and women are “active participants” in related decision-making.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Kay Hagan (D-NC)—members of key Senate committees on intelligence, armed services, and foreign relations—were among those who lent their support to the letter.

While NATO member states will undoubtedly use the summit to trumpet the transition’s progress, US lawmakers have reason to be concerned. In advance of Chicago, the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), the largest network of women-led organizations in Afghanistan, fanned across the country to hold consultations about the security transition with more than 300 women leaders in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and six other provincial centers.

On Thursday, they released a position paper [PDF] highlighting the outcomes of their consultations and confirming that women are not being included in the creation and implementation of transition plans.

This exclusion is having an effect on women’s perceptions. For instance, the women who participated in AWN’s consultations expressed a lack of trust in their own security forces’ capacity to respond to women’s needs. What’s more, contrary to the talk in Washington and many international capitals, they perceive the Afghan Local Police as part of the problem, not the solution, that “contribute[s] to destabilization and act[s] as a driver of local conflict.”

If the transition cannot create space for women’s participation in securing their future and continues to fuel local instability that undermines women’s protections, it’s hard to see how the security and political transitions can succeed.

Although Afghan women have a lot to contribute to the NATO Chicago discussions, they were not invited to the summit as part of the official delegation. While about a quarter of the Afghan government’s delegation to the 2011 Bonn Conference was comprised of women, only one woman—President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff—is expected to participate in the Chicago Summit. With nine women on the High Peace Council, dozens in the parliament, and many thousands in government ministries and civil society, it’s not as if the country lacks for women who would make meaningful, substantive insights if given the chance. Afghan women are right to point out the missed opportunity.

As the summit kicks off on Sunday, Amnesty International will host a shadow summit to try to bring the matter of Afghan women’s inclusion and protection to the attention of NATO member state representatives and international media. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) will speak at the event, as well as Afifa Azim and Mahbouba Seraj, AWN’s director and executive board chair. Also on Sunday, Melanne Verveer, US ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, will address the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at an event with the Afghan foreign minister and Farkhunda Naderi, a member of the Women Waging Peace Network.

Afghan women and their allies in the US Congress will be looking to the gathering’s final declaration for an indication that their proposal for responsible transition that accounts for women’s security and inclusion is breaking through and winning the support of Afghan and international stakeholders.

Let’s hope it does. It’s not too late to commit to the type of transition process that could sustain the gains Afghans have made over the last 11 years.

Travis Wheeler is an advocate at The Institute for Inclusive Security. He leads our congressional outreach and supports the work of our Afghanistan Team.

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