KABUL, Afghanistan – As efforts gather pace to renew peace talks with the Taliban, Afghan women still haunted by the insurgents' brutal rule say they are being left out of the process, and fear that an accommodation with the militants could lead to the loss of hard-won rights.
Ending a 15-year war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives is seen by many as a more urgent priority than preserving and expanding women's rights in a deeply conservative country. But rights advocates point to data showing that peace efforts are far more likely to succeed when women are involved.
Women have been absent from more than 20 rounds of informal Afghan peace talks spanning more than a decade, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Women took part in two meetings with Taliban representatives last year in Oslo and Doha, but those were not sanctioned by Kabul.
There were no women in attendance at two rounds of talks held earlier this month by representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China, which are aimed at reviving negotiations with the Taliban that broke down last summer after a single meeting when Kabul announced the death of the Taliban's longtime leader.
The exclusion of women can be partly attributed to their limited representation in Afghanistan, where men hold virtually all top positions in government and the security forces.
But rights advocates also say President Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat who has vowed to protect women's constitutional rights, has backtracked on promises to bring them into the process.
"The government has shown multiple times that it doesn't really take women's interests seriously enough," said Human Rights Watch researcher Ahmad Shuja. He said Afghanistan is obliged to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, which calls for women's participation in peace negotiations.
A U.N. study of that resolution published last year found that including women in peace negotiations makes it more likely that the process will succeed.
It said negotiations that included women were 20 percent more likely to result in a deal that lasted at least two years, and that the longer the peace lasted, the greater the likelihood that it would continue to endure. It found that women broaden the debate, speed up the process and increase the involvement of different sectors of society.
"We know that when women are placed at the center of security, justice, economic recovery and good governance, they will be more direct recipients of a range of peace dividends including job creation and public services. This means that the pay-offs of peace will be delivered more rapidly to communities," the report said.
Ghani's deputy spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, said the government "will continue to consult with women, just like we engage with representatives of all walks of life, as we move forward to end the conflict."
"The president has been explicit in his intention to preserve the rights and achievements of Afghan women; that is the guiding principle for Afghan officials who are engaged in the peace process," Hashemi said.
That hasn't been enough to reassure Mahbouba Seraj. The director of the Organization of Research for Peace and Solidarity, which advocates for peace and rights, fears Ghani will keep women out of the process until the very end, after all the big questions have already been decided.
"We have to walk this line very carefully because it is not the time for us to lose even the smallest, smallest amount of what we have achieved in all these years," said Seraj. She was one of three women among 11 civil society representatives who attended a parallel meeting to the four-nation talks in Islamabad on Jan. 11.
The stakes for Afghan women could not be higher. Many vividly remember life under the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 until they were overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Under the Taliban, women were banned from studying and working outside the home, and were forced to wear all-covering burqas that restrict sight and movement. Women were beaten in the streets for violating the strict dress code and publicly executed in their burqas — anonymity intact — for alleged sexual indiscretions.
The Taliban have more recently hinted at greater openness to girls' education and women working outside the home. But in areas under their control women have been forced indoors, girls' schools have been shuttered and shelters for victims of domestic violence have been destroyed.
A woman's right to education, work, the vote and protection from violence inside and outside the home has been enshrined in the Afghan constitution. Challenges remain when it comes to access to health care and fair treatment by law enforcement and the judiciary, but the progress has been undeniable.
As women have gained new rights they've also grown more determined to keep them.
"Afghan women do not want a peace that again restricts women's access to school or work outside the home," said Suhaila Sahar, director of the General Association of Public Servants, a national network of vocational training centers for women.
"Women are half the population of the country and must not be ignored. This lack of a role in the peace talks is extremely frustrating for me," she said.
Associated Press writer Humayoon Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.