As the war in Afghanistan winds down, Afghan women and those who support them are clamoring to make sure that years of progress in women's rights are not reversed as the international community leaves.
The State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer, represented the U.S. government at a series of events in Chicago meant to highlight the plight of Afghanistan's female population and urge their inclusion in the political process. There was only one woman in the Afghan government's official delegation, but Verveer and others strove to make sure the issue didn't get short shrift in Chicago.
Verveer headlined a "shadow summit for Afghan women" Sunday in Chicago that included the participation of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The goal of the summit was to urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO leaders, especially President Barack Obama, to boost women's participation in Afghan civil society development and to call on them to protect hard-fought rights for Afghan women if and when the Taliban re-enter the Afghan government.
"This issue was not one that should be viewed as a favor to women, but one that is absolutely critical to any future progress, stability, or peace in Afghanistan," Verveer said in a Monday interview with The Cable.
She noted that the joint declaration issued at the summit Monday gave a nod to women's equality in Afghanistan but said that more work needed to be done to ensure promises will be kept if the Taliban join the government.
"Red lines have been established [for Taliban reconciliation] that, in addition to renunciation of violence and rejection of al Qaeda, talk about adherence to the constitution, which includes women's rights and all that represents," Verveer said. "It has been an intensive, extensive, ongoing effort and that will continue."
Leading human rights groups are not so sure that effort is succeeding. Amnesty International, the organization that convened the shadow summit, released Sunday an open letter to Obama and Karzai pleading for more protections and a greater role for Afghan women.
"We are concerned that the U.S. and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 may put women and girls at even greater risk of abuses... In this climate, we are alarmed that inadequate attention is being paid to women's rights and participation in peace talks with the Taliban," stated the letter.
"The United States, Afghanistan and other relevant parties must commit to clear, measurable steps to ensure that women's and girls' rights are protected and that positive momentum is maintained. Without these safeguards, any peace agreement will represent false progress and doom Afghanistan to repeat its repressive past."
The letter was signed by Albright, Schakowsky, actress Meryl Streep, musician Joan Baez, former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, artist Yoko Ono, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, musician Sting, and many others.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, told The Cable Monday that although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out about Afghan women, there's a lot more the U.S. government can and must do.
"This weekend's summit contained no specific recognition of the circumstances women faced under the Taliban, the progress that has been made over the last 10 years and the primary importance of making sure that progress continues," she said. "There's not a sense this is being considered a critical piece of the overall transition process. This really requires presidential leadership."
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