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Guest Opinion - A Time For Cautious Celebration
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March marks Women’s History Month, a celebration of women’s achievements and a reminder of the work that still must be done to ensure basic security and rights for women. Nowhere is this contrast more significant than in Afghanistan, where a successful transition to a sustainable peace hinges on the inclusion and equality of women.

Afghan women have made gains these past 10 years. There are now 3.2 million Afghan girls enrolled in school since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Afghan women’s organizations lobbied diligently for a provision of gender equality in the Constitution and have won the right to vote in elections. Afghanistan has adopted a 25 percent parliamentary quota in the lower house of parliament, one of the highest in the world and, unlike the United States, Afghanistan has signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

But while providing opportunities for women to vote, work and attend schools in Afghanistan is paramount to equality, women can’t pursue these opportunities if they aren’t safe. Combat activities like night raids and drone strikes are not furthering Afghan women’s security. Instead, these activities are fueling military conflict that hinders the development of political solutions.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in March 2011, 63 percent of Americans are opposed to continuing the war in Afghanistan. Washington also has joined the chorus calling for our troops to come home. On Feb. 1, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the United States will end its combat missions in Afghanistan by “mid- to the latter part of 2013.” In late February, 87 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama praising this accelerated timetable. There is no question that we are leaving Afghanistan, but what will we leave behind?

As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan and we begin to think beyond war, our engagement with the country must not end. In a recent National Public Radio (NPR) interview, Fawzia Koofi - who has been a deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament and is now being talked about as a potential first woman president in Afghanistan - said of the United States, “I know in your capitals, in your country and among your public, issues like women’s rights, human rights are not the main reason you are in Afghanistan, but this is one of the achievements you have invested blood and treasure for.” We should honor this sacrifice and we should invest wisely in economic and social programs that enhance security through demilitarization and promote women’s rights through inclusive peace processes. These investments will be far less costly than the decade of war that came before.

In December 2011, President Barack Obama released the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, and signed an Executive Order directing the plan to be implemented. Together, the Executive Order and National Action Plan (NAP) chart a roadmap for how the United States will accelerate and institutionalize efforts across the government to advance women’s participation in preventing conflict and keeping peace. These documents represent a fundamental change in how the United States will approach its diplomatic, military and development-based support to women in areas of conflict like Afghanistan. It is a step in the right direction, but there is far more work to be done.

The meaningful representation of women in all peace negotiations and post-conflict recovery planning is critical. As a state legislator, I know how important it is for women to be at the table to build coalitions, speak up for unheard voices and decide how resources should be allocated. This is true of peace-building around the world, too. At the 10th anniversary of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in October of 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “It’s not as though we are doing a favor for ourselves and them by including women in the work of peace. This is a necessary global security imperative. Including women in the work of peace advances our national security interests, promotes political stability, economic growth and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. … No peace that sacrifices women’s rights is a peace we can afford to support.”

Women’s History Month gives us reason for cautious celebration. Can we preserve the gains that Afghan women have made? We must support a peace-building transition strategy that emphasizes the roles and rights of women.

Sandy Pappas is a State Senator from Minnesota and co-founder of the Global Women’s Convening at the University of St. Catherine. She serves as the Vice President of the Women Legislator’s Lobby - a program of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).