HERAT, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's women are demanding a seat at the table in negotiations over the country's future, determined to prevent the gains they have made since the 2001 fall of the Taliban from being bargained away. But already, they are meeting resistance to having a strong voice in the talks.
Women's rights activists are not just concerned about the Taliban, who were notorious for their repression of women during their rule. They are just as worried that religious conservatives, warlords and strongmen who dominate Afghanistan's U.S.-backed leadership — and whose attitudes toward women often differ little from the Taliban — will trade away their rights to reach a deal.
Pressure is on for a peace accord as the United States seeks to end its long military presence in Afghanistan.
For women, the stakes are high. The advances they have made are important — for example, women are now members of parliament, and their rights are enshrined in the constitution, including the right to education.
But the gains are fragile and limited, and nearly 18 years after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban, Afghan women still live under a crushing weight of discrimination. What laws that do exist are little enforced, activists say, giving male relatives and tribal councils almost complete say over women's and girls' lives. That leaves them vulnerable to violence, early marriage and exclusion from work and education. The 2018 Women, Peace and Security Index rated Afghanistan as the second worst place in the world to be a woman, after Syria.
Strong participation in talks is "not a gift, it is our right," said Suraya Pakzad, an activist. "We, the women of Afghanistan, are suffering, fighting to bring peace in Afghanistan, to change Afghanistan."
"We will not allow anyone to push us, to force us to go back," she said. "We know how to raise our voices."
Activists are pressing for at least a third of participants in any negotiations to be women.
But so far, the door has been largely closed to them. President Ashraf Ghani appointed only five women to a 37-member council created to shepherd negotiations. Dozens of women were also taken off the list of planned participants at the first round of all-Afghan talks between the government and Taliban, meant to have been held last week in Qatar. The gathering was cancelled at the last minute because of a separate dispute.
Pakzad was part of a team of women delegates who were told even before the cancellation that they would not be let into the talks. "Women had travelled from far away rural areas, through many Taliban checkpoints in their burqas and passed very dangerous areas to attend," she said.
Activists say the advances for women are erratically enforced and hardly felt in rural areas where most Afghans live.
Only 16 percent of the workforce is women, one of the lowest rates in the world, and half of Afghanistan's women have had four years or less of education, according to data compiled by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo. Only around half of school-aged girls go to school, and only 19 percent of girls under 15 are literate, according to The U.N. children's agency.
Most girls are married before 19 to men selected by their parents — and in some villages, girls as young as 7 or 8 are regularly married off. Women who leave an abusive husband or marry a man of their choice risk being imprisoned for "morality crimes."
Pakzad operates women's shelters in western Afghanistan. At one of the shelters, in the western city of Herat, dozens of women and girls struggle with their nightmares.
Alissa, a 16-year-old, has lived in the shelter for five years after escaping her husband. Her family married her to him when she was 6. "I didn't even know what a wedding was," she said, speaking in a near whisper, her head lowered. "All night I was so scared, and the next day I cried and cried."
She wanted to leave, but one of her brothers threatened to kill her if she came home. Finally, after four years with her husband, another brother brought her home. Her mother-in-law demanded her back — or her younger sister, then 7, as compensation. Both girls escaped to the shelter.
She and other girls at the shelter spoke on condition they be identified only by first name, fearing reprisals by family.
Another teen, Khadeja, said her father took her out of school after the fifth grade despite her pleas to stay in classes. He then forced her to marry at 16. From the beginning, her husband beat her, often tying her to a tree as he did it, or cut her with knives, she said. When she fled, her father sent her back, telling her "I only want you back home wrapped in the white shroud of the dead.'"
Her husband threw boiling water on her face and body, and for four hours she had to plead to her in-laws to take her to a hospital, in agony as her skin peeled away. She finally got treatment. Her husband was briefly detained but released without charge. Once back home, he threatened to cut off her nose. She fled to her father's house, but he and her step-mother told her to go back.
Instead, she found her way to the shelter. There, she takes classes and said she hopes to be a teacher one day.
But she remains in constant pain. "All the time I pray to my God to help me die," she said, sobbing.
Associated Press reporter Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.