09.24.10

Afghan Women Need Us

Katie Couric, Zainab Salbi, and other attendees at a dinner held during the Clinton Global Initiative made an impassioned plea for an Afghan peace deal that does not abandon its women.

At a star-filled dinner around the Clinton Global Initiative celebrating the importance of women’s economic empowerment around the world, fears about the future of Afghan women occupied the glittering ballroom.

Nearly 10 years after the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, women are fighting to be heard in talks with the Taliban that will decide their future. Guaranteeing that women’s voices are represented, in full and with more than symbolic attention, is critical to creating any kind of a just peace in the long-troubled country.

“The call for action for American women is to ensure that our Afghan sisters are included in whatever political negotiation is happening in Afghanistan,” Salbi said.

Since my first trip to Afghanistan five years ago, I have seen women make great strides for themselves amid daunting setbacks, most of them stemming from security. Today, just as the world is scaling back its goals for Afghanistan, Afghan women are scaling up their own ambitions, entering every field from business to the Army to politics. Making sure these women are not abandoned to a deal that comes at the cost of their rights is critical not only to building a durable peace, but also to strengthening U.S. interests.

Those who know the country and the strength of its women are now speaking out passionately on the issue.

“There is simply no way we can talk about a stable Afghanistan and an Afghanistan that has a lasting peace if it does not have the protection and the inclusion and the full participation of women in all of the peace-building processes,” said Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International, which provides jobs and skills training to women in Afghanistan. “It is in our interest that we have them at the negotiating table in every single part of the decision-making to ensure that we are building a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.”

At the dinner, CBS News anchor Katie Couric took to the microphone to express her concerns and share the fears she heard from women during her recent visit to the country.

“I just spent three days in Afghanistan,” she told the audience of more than 100 women’s empowerment leaders, advocates, and activists hosted by Goldman Sachs’ 10000 Women program, including the World Bank’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, model and activist Christy Turlington Burns, and The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown. “And I am really worried about what happens to these women. Will the nations of the world allow the newfound rights of girls and women to become a casualty of a brokered peace?”

U.S. officials agree it is critical that they do not. But they acknowledge they are facing a tough battle to win over the American public, particularly as the Democratic Party’s leftward flank has been outspoken about its reservations concerning the war. U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Affairs Melanne Verveer and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been out front and outspoken about having women at the negotiating table. But it is not an easy fight.

And they could use the public’s help.

“The call for action for American women is to ensure that our Afghan sisters are included in whatever political negotiation is happening in Afghanistan,” Salbi said. “We are not negotiating on their behalf; what we want is for them to be negotiating. No women, no peace.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has spent the last five years reporting on women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions, including Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia. Her upcoming book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women in her neighborhood during the Taliban years. It will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011.