In recent history, Afghanistan has proved a particularly grim place for half the population. The Taliban regime succeeded in virtually erasing women from public life. Afghan women were denied rights to education, movement, dress, health care and association. With Taliban-held cities falling to the Northern Alliance every day, the international community's discussions of a post-Taliban government are taking on great urgency. So far, those discussions have been devoid of any serious mention of how to include women in discussions about the future governance of Afghanistan, and how to guarantee that any future government is willing to promote women's fundamental right to equality and dignity.
The demise of the Taliban should be good news for the women of Afghanistan, but without vigilance and commitment by the United Nations and the international community Afghan women will have negligible say in the formation of a new government. As a result, after the war, they could end up only marginally better off than they were under Taliban rule. The UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Secretary of State Colin Powell are working to put together a "broad- based, diverse, representative and multiethnic coalition" to decide Afghanistan's political future. Or are they? Women's rights activists from around the world and Afghan women themselves are concerned that Afghan women will once again be excluded from any future coalition.
Afghan women suffered systematic violence and discrimination during the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The Taliban used draconian and arbitrary rules and public beatings to control and terrorize women. But the extent of the Northern Alliance's commitment to women's equality is unclear and untested.
Both the alliance and the Taliban raped women during the conflict. Thousands of women have been physically assaulted by both factions and have had severe restrictions placed on their liberty and basic freedoms.
Now General Powell and Mr. Brahimi seem on the brink of leaving women out of the discussions about Afghanistan's future.
Mr. Brahimi has had discussions with Afghan women's groups in Pakistan and the United States, but Afghan women are not convinced of his commitment to ensure women's inclusion. One Afghan women's activist told me that Mr. Brahimi believes it is just too difficult to involve women in this process.
The United States and the United Nations must consider including women in at least two key ways if their commitment to women's rights is to be anything other than rhetoric.
First, they should consult with women in civil society about their views and criteria for a government in Afghanistan. Second, they should include women at the negotiation table as equal participants in determining Afghanistan's political future.
Bringing women into this process is the only way to increase the likelihood of a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan that respects their rights.
LaShawn Jefferson is Executive Director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.