A three-day conference aimed at breathing life into Afghanistan’s stalled peace process has been launched in Moscow, but Afghan human rights activists have raised the alarm that the delegates included just one woman.
Habiba Sarabi, an activist and politician, was the only female delegate on the 12-member team representing the Afghan government and political leaders at Thursday’s summit in Moscow. The 10-member delegation sent by the Islamist Taliban had none.
Sarabi addressed a vast table of male counterparts at a Moscow hotel, calling for a ceasefire. “Why should [I] be the only woman in the room? We have not been part of the war, we can certainly contribute to peace,” she said, according to a tweet from a fellow negotiator that she shared. “51% of people should not be ignored.”
With just six weeks left before a deadline for foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, Shaharazad Akbar, who leads Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said it was unacceptable that only one woman attended the meeting. It was also a worrying sign for the future: “It’s setting the tone for things to come in terms of inclusivity,” she said.
The Moscow summit was the start of a series of international meetings reflecting a shift in focus by Washington, as the 1 May deadline for the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops looms, and negotiations between the government and Taliban in Doha have been stalled.
Diplomats say Washington wants support from regional powers to push Afghans to form a power-sharing government. At the talks in Moscow, the United States was joined by Russia, China and Pakistan in calling for an Afghan ceasefire.
Women’s rights activists fear that the shift will further dilute the role of the few women involved in the peace process, in favour of traditional male political figures.
In many cases, the regional powers owe their influence in Afghanistan to ties with warlords who held sway throughout four decades of conflict, all of them men.
“A number of our colleagues in the international community are going to … the same leaders, who ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago,” said Fauzia Koofi, one of just four female negotiators among the 42 representing the Afghan sides in Doha.
A spokesperson for the US state department said Washington wished there had been more than one woman in the Moscow delegation. The United States would advocate for “meaningful participation” by women in upcoming gatherings.
A spokesman for Afghanistan’s presidential palace did not immediately respond to request for comment.
During the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, women were required to fully cover their bodies and faces in a burqa, and were barred from education or work – or from leaving the house without a male relative. The Taliban say they have changed but many women remain sceptical.