Afghan Women See An Opportunity At Bonn

On December 5, the international community will gather with Afghan leaders in Bonn, Germany's picturesque Cold War-era capital, for the latest stock-taking of Afghanistan. While some are tempering expectations for the second major conference in Bonn in ten years, Afghan women leaders see an opportunity -- and they're doing everything they can to seize it.

Despite not receiving invitations to the conference itself, 10 members of the Afghan Women's Network (AWN), a non-partisan network of women and women's NGOs working to empower Afghan women and ensure their equal participation in Afghan society, will go to Germany in an audacious attempt to influence foreign ministers and the media from the sidelines of the conference. While they'd rather be active participants or observers to the actual event, they've been here before.

At the January 2010 London Conference, a delegation of five uninvited Afghan women leaders crashed the party and succeeded in catching the attention of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Over the summer, AWN partnered with The Institute for Inclusive Security, which works to enhance the inclusion of women in peace processes, to bring a delegation of a dozen women leaders from Kabul, Kandahar, and several conflict-affected provinces to Washington, DC for a week of high-level exchanges with US officials. From the White House, to the Pentagon, to the US Capitol, their message was clear: Afghan women must be included in all decision-making, national and international, related to the peace process and transition -- and the 2011 Bonn Conference is no exception.

Since their visit to Washington, AWN has waged a tireless advocacy campaign around this very message -- and it appears they've had an impact. Although no members of AWN will officially be attending the conference, 13 women from the High Peace Council, parliament, and various ministries have been invited to join President Karzai's official delegation to Bonn. Nearly 50 percent of the Afghan leaders participating in the December 3 Civil Society Forum in Bonn are also women. What's more, a woman leader has been nominated to represent the views of Afghan civil society at the conference plenary.

Although Bonn represents somewhat of a watershed moment in terms of Afghan women's inclusion at an international conference, what remains to be seen is whether or not those gathered in Germany will seek to establish more inclusive frameworks that will help sustain women's gains amidst reconciliation with the Taliban, reintegration of insurgents into local communities, and a security transition that the White House may try to accelerate.

Today, several influential US female members of Congress led a bicameral, bipartisan effort to reach out to Secretary Clinton about Bonn. Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards, co-chairs of the newly-minted Afghan Women's Task Force, along with 24 other female elected officials, including Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX ), wrote to Secretary Clinton to ensure the opportunity isn't lost. In their letter they express their hope that Afghan and international leaders will articulate a plan for "a more inclusive approach to reconciliation that will open avenues for women's meaningful inclusion and put Afghanistan firmly on the path of peace and prosperity."

Wazhma Frogh, an activist who will be in Germany with the Afghan Women's Network, shares the congresswomen's vision. "After the tragic assassination of Rabbani [the High Peace Council's former leader], everyone was writing two obituaries: one for him and one for the reconciliation process. As an Afghan woman, I always believe peace is possible -- but we need to move from political deal-making towards a citizen-led national dialogue, just as they did in South Africa."

While a more inclusive reconciliation process via a national dialogue remains a top advocacy priority for Afghan women, the AWN delegates will arrive prepared to speak to any item on the conference's agenda.

When it comes to reconciliation, AWN wants to see more women -- at least 30 percent -- appointed to the High Peace Council (the government body charged with exploring reconciliation with the Taliban) and Provincial Peace Councils. Currently, only 9 out of 70 HPC members are women and Provincial Peace Councils tend to have only one woman representative or none at all.

When it comes to reintegration, AWN wants to see family-oriented, not fighter-oriented, transitional assistance, which, they argue, would serve the dual purpose of attracting more fighters to the reintegration program and preventing fighters who have already joined from returning to the insurgency.

When it comes to transition, AWN wants to see a responsible transition where the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and Afghan authorities involve them in transition planning and track indicators that gauge the transition's impact on women's security.

When it comes to international engagement beyond 2014, AWN wants to see continued political and financial support for women-led projects and initiatives, as well as people-to-people peacebuilding exchanges at the regional level, particularly with Pakistan.

Samira Hamidi, AWN's country director and a member of the delegation to Germany, thinks they'll find a receptive audience in Bonn. "President Karzai, Secretary Clinton, and many others are looking to Afghan women for solutions. We've delivered in the past and we plan to do so again."

In advance of Bonn, AWN held regional consultations with more than 500 women leaders from 20 provinces and published a position paper outlining women's perspectives and recommendations. And on the morning of December 5, as the diplomatic proceedings begin, AWN will release a women's declaration at a press conference in Germany, outlining what they would have said had they been given the opportunity to address conference participants directly.

No matter what happens next week, one thing is clear: Afghan women understand that peace is a process, not an event. It's time for the international community to get with the program and take concrete steps -- beginning at Bonn -- to ensure women are key players in building a peaceful, prosperous, and, most importantly, inclusive Afghanistan.