United States lead negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad briefs Afghan government officials including President Ashraf Ghani, January 28, 2019. 

© 2019 Office of the President of Afghanistan

A peace deal in Afghanistan – for years seeming hopelessly elusive – may now be on the horizon. After 17 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the United States is bringing new urgency to negotiating with the Taliban and is proclaiming progress. But Afghan women are right to fear that a peace agreement may not mean peace for them.

Under Taliban rule, Afghan women and girls suffered shocking rights violations, including denial of education and freedom of movement.

Today, the group’s views on women have moderated slightly but remain highly repressive. For example, the Taliban now call for “education for all” but in practice generally prevent girls from studying beyond puberty.

Afghan women’s rights activists have long feared their rights could be a bargaining chip – and one easily surrendered – in peace negotiations with the Taliban. They have fought for years for a place at the table as negotiators – and been almost entirely rebuffed. And with the Afghan government yet to be included in US-Taliban talks, women’s participation feels more urgent than ever.

Recent peace negotiations have focused on US troop withdrawal, and whether the Taliban will pledge not to provide a base for international terrorism, with little public discussion of women’s rights. In past years, US officials might have publicly pledged to protect Afghan women’s rights in any deal – even though the US turned a blind eye to women’s exclusion from negotiations. But now, Afghan women have reason to fear that the US government – long a major funder of desperately needed services for women in Afghanistan – will no longer make protecting their rights a priority. US silence feeds that fear. And photos of US lead negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad briefing exclusively male Afghan government officials have not reassured them.

Two decades ago, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which calls for women’s participation in all peace processes. Since then, many government have recognized that the role of women in peace processes is not just an afterthought, but critical to sustainable and implementable peace accords. Afghan government participation in negotiations should include women negotiators as part of its delegation, as President Ashraf Ghani in November pledged to do, and the US should prioritize participation by Afghan women and protection of women’s rights. With a peace deal at last looking possible in Afghanistan, this is no time to leave women out.