KABUL - An international rights group has called on the Afghan government and its Western backers to ensure gains made by women in the country are not sacrificed in any peace talks with the Taliban.
A week ahead of a major international conference in Kabul to discuss the future of Afghanistan, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for current leaders to be made accountable for past crimes.
In a report released Tuesday, the organization said moves towards talking peace with the Islamist Taliban to end the war have the potential to roll back rights hard-won by Afghan women.
It cites the way women and girls are treated in areas under Taliban control, denied constitutional rights to be educated and work outside their homes, under threat of violence or death.
The 70-page report, "The Ten-Dollar Talib and Women's Rights," warns that President Hamid Karzai's government may be willing to compromise on these rights as part of any deal with the insurgents.
"Afghan women want an end to the conflict. But as the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban draws closer, many women fear that they may also pay a heavy price for peace," the report says.
"Reconciliation with the Taliban, a group synonymous with misogynous policies and the violent repression of women, raises serious concerns about the possible erosion of recently gained rights and freedoms," it says.
Rhetoric about embracing Taliban loyalists who fight from economic need rather than ideological sympathy "ignores the experiences of women living in Taliban-controlled areas".
The Taliban's five-year rule, which ended with a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, was marked by general repression that was particularly brutal towards women.
Girls were not permitted to go to school — and even now are sometimes attacked and their schools destroyed by extremists.
Women were not allowed out unless accompanied by a male relative and wearing a burqa. They were attacked in the street for such perceived crimes as wearing white shoes and rape victims were publicly executed as adulterers.
Even today, women who become politically active often face death threats and some have been murdered or forced into exile abroad.
After nine years of insurgency, the Taliban hold sway over large parts of the south, with a presence across most of Afghanistan.
Karzai has proposed negotiating with the Taliban leadership, based in Pakistan and supported by its military and intelligence organisations.
Pressure for solutions is building as the war is unpopular in the United States and NATO countries, which have 140,000 troops in Afghanistan, and another 10,000 on the way as part of a counter-insurgency "surge".
The allies are funding a program of reintegration that aims to encourage low-level fighters — "10-dollar Talibs" — to go home and get jobs.
A much more complex reconciliation effort is aimed at the leadership and must address such issues as removing groups from terror lists, cutting ties to al-Qaida, exile in third countries, and possible inclusion in government.
The Taliban have said they will not start negotiations until all foreign forces have left Afghanistan.
HRW says Afghan women fear that if Taliban commanders are granted political power in a reconciliation process without restrictions or involvement of women, "the result is likely to be the denial of the rights of women and girls".
Samira Hamidi, head of the Afghan Women's Network, told HRW constitutional guarantees are not specific enough to ensure women are protected in the case of a Taliban role in government.
Bringing Taliban commanders into government also risked further alienating Afghans dismayed that parliament is stuffed with former warlords yet to be held to account for past misdeeds, including mass murder, HRW said.
Many are protected by an amnesty law granting immunity to anyone engaged in armed conflict before December 2001, and extending it to those engaged in current hostilities if they agree to reconciliation with the government.
What HRW called an "enduring climate of impunity" further undermined progress for women, underpinning violence, and limiting access to justice, political office and influence.