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Women gather to demand their rights under Taliban rule during a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 3, 2021. © 2021 Wali Sabawoon/AP Photo

Women are missing from the biggest high-level political negotiations happening right now to try to end crises around the world.  

No women are involved in negotiations held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with the goal of ending Sudan’s brutal conflict.

Excluded from the Doha agreement on Afghanistan, women continue to be cut out of subsequent international meetings on the country’s future.

The fate of Gaza and Palestine and the release of Israeli hostages is predominantly being negotiated among men from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and sometimes (though not always) Palestine.

Only one woman made it onto a new transitional council in Haiti.

The U.S. should be pressing to correct this pattern and include women in these talks. The Biden administration is part of all of these negotiations. It also has a formal strategy to “seek and support the preparation and meaningful participation of women around the world in decision-making processes related to conflict and crises.” But it’s far from clear if the United States is fighting at all for women to be at the table.

That’s not very strategic. According to UN women, one form of high-level negotiation — the peace agreement — is 35 percent more likely to last 15 years or more if women participate. This is not only an issue of gender equality but of increasing the chances of a sustainable peace.

Women in Sudan are enduring hell. Over a year ago, war broke out between the country’s two main generals and the forces they command. In this conflict, women are being killed, raped, enslaved, forced into marriage (even as children), and denied access to life-sustaining aid, among other abuses. In Darfur, Massalit women and their families are being targeted — killed, subjected to sexual violence, forcibly displaced and driven from their homes because of their ethnicity. 

Despite the direct violence against them, Sudanese women have been cut out of all political processes surrounding this conflict. In 2023, the Jeddah process, sponsored by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to bring warring partners together, excluded civilians, including female Sudanese leaders. Their absence is all the more glaring, given that Sudanese women have been organizing relentlessly against the war, condemning widespread violations, responding to civilians’ immense needs and have deep knowledge of the conflict’s dynamics.

Other high-level talks by the African Union, the Intergovernmental-Authority on Development, and Sudan’s neighbors also sequestered women into solely observatory roles amid the primarily male club of negotiators. With few champions paying attention and even fewer resources, Sudanese women’s groups have formed their own coalitions and directly raised this concern with the UN and the African Union, to try to secure a seat at the table.  

The U.S. should ensure that Sudanese women are included in any new Jeddah talks and provide resources for women’s rights groups.  The U.S. left women’s rights out of their negotiations with the Taliban following 20 years of military operations and investment in women’s rights in Afghanistan. The word “women” does not even appear in the final Doha agreement of 2020, by which the U.S. left Afghanistan.

The former head of Afghanistan’s human rights commission, Shaharzad Akbar, said she warned U.S. officials of the harm of excluding Afghan women but was ignored. The U.S. “let the Taliban set the conditions of the talks,” she wrote. “They participated in a process that would decide the fate of millions of Afghan women but that included zero Afghan women at the negotiating table.”

Not surprisingly, the Taliban immediately began dismantling the rights of women and girls, including banning them from many forms of employment, secondary and university education and freedom of movement. My Human Rights Watch colleague Heather Barr noted the bitter result of leaving women out of political engagement: “When diplomats ‘engage,’ the focus is often on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, business deals, or hostage returns. Despite Afghan women signaling and appealing otherwise, their rights protection agenda rarely makes it onto the priority list of diplomats.”

Instead of learning from Doha, the exclusion of Afghan women continues. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has convened two “special envoys’ meetings” on Afghanistan in May 2023 and February 2024. At the first meeting, Afghan women were shut out of the official gathering and had to meet separately with a group of willing envoys.

At the second, three women were invited as part of a civil society delegation but were given only two hours on day two with the delegates who chose to meet them. The question remains if this perfunctory practice will be repeated at the next special envoys meeting scheduled for June or if the UN will follow its obligations to facilitate full participation of women.

In Haiti, women and girls are routinely targets of sexual violence, including gang rape. They experience a disproportionate impact of violence that further limits their access to essential goods and services. As with Sudan and Afghanistan, women are also woefully underrepresented in political discussions about the country’s future.

When the Haitian ambassador to UNESCO, Dominique Dupuy, was nominated as a candidate for the new transitional presidential council in late March, she stepped down due to a “string of political attacks, sexist remarks, and threats to her safety.” In the end, the nine-member transitional presidential council was composed of eight men and only one woman, Régine Abraham, serving as a non-voting observer. This, despite the call from Haitian feminist organizations to ensure a minimum participation of 30 percent women in this new transitional government.

The U.S., Canada and CARICOM (the Caribbean community of states) are the primary powers engaged in Haiti’s political transition to a new democratic government. They should demand that women be represented.

Finally, the end of hostilities in Gaza, release of Israeli hostages, and the future of Palestine are being decided entirely by men at the highest level. The Israeli War Cabinet is all men; the team of U.S. officials leading the various negotiations are all men; and the Arab countries involved, like Saudi Arabia, have no senior women officials. Yet Israeli women were killed, sexually assaulted, and taken hostage on Oct. 7 by Hamas’s military wing and other associated Palestinian armed groups.

Gaza’s Health Ministry says that Israel’s military response in Gaza has resulted in the killing of 9,800 Palestinian women. Israel’s unlawful blockade and use of starvation as a weapon of war has affected women in specific and devastating ways. It is hard to see how any conversation about the future of the region can be successful if it does not meaningfully include the voices of women.

In all high-level political negotiations that decide the future of communities and peoples, the U.S. should follow its own legislative commitments and make women’s participation a condition of its own participation, sponsorship, endorsement and funding.

The Biden administration can become an example by appointing women to the diplomatic teams engaging with the Sudanese warring parties, Haiti’s transitional government, the Taliban, and all actors in Gaza dialogues.

The lack of women in political negotiations isn’t going to go away. In coming years, we might see deals struck for Ukraine. That’s just one of many examples where women should be essential participants.

Women at the negotiating table shouldn’t be an afterthought or a nice-to-do item. We are half the world’s population. We are decision-makers. We are civilian leaders. We know what our communities need.

Stop seeing us only as victims and speaking for us. Stop blocking our seat at the table.

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