Move is aimed at safeguarding women’s rights and follows a demand by activists for a seat at the talks
By Shadi Khan Saif
KABUL, Aug 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Afghan government has announced a new council to safeguard women's rights and interests, amid fears peace talks with the Taliban could lead to the loss of hard-won gains.
President Ashraf Ghani said the council, announced late on Thursday, would "empower women", promote their rights at home and implement Afghanistan's international commitments on women's rights.
The move came a day after a coalition of women's rights activists wrote to Ghani demanding a place in the historic talks with the Islamist militant group that once banished women from public life.
"We will not allow our place and contribution towards rebuilding our country to be erased or reversed," they said.
The United States and the Taliban reached a peace deal in February, but many Afghan women worry that it does not include adequate safeguards for their rights.
They fear a U.S. troop withdrawal, the winding down of international engagement and re-emergence of the Taliban in politics could destroy hard-won gains women have made since 2001 - from education to freedom of movement.
The Taliban have said they will sit down with Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government in Qatar within a week of the release of the last of their prisoners, a precondition to the talk, aimed at drawing a line under more than 40 years of war.
On Thursday, the Afghan government released 80 of the last Taliban prisoners from a final batch of 400.
Lawmaker Fawzia Koofi, a vocal critic of the Taliban who has been involved in the peace process, said the council would help drive gender equality.
"In countries where gender disparities are huge due to many reasons, such steps can definitely change the status quo", she said.
The president said the council would comprise representatives from at least 26 non-government and government bodies, including female deputy governors from various provinces.
But it was not clear what, if any, formal powers the council would have and Arezo Aasenat, a Kabul-based women's rights activist, cautioned against putting too much faith in it.
"It is yet to be seen if this council can safeguard women's rights in the face of the Taliban, who seem determined to roll back the gains of the past few years and force women and girls to stay home", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Members of this council must ensure the extremists do not sideline women in Afghanistan."
The Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law that included public lashings, flogging and stonings.
Under their rule from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women were obliged to cover their faces and could not study, work or leave the house without a male relative.
The group has said it would now allow women to be educated and employed, but within the limits of Islamic law and Afghan culture.
(Reporting by Shadi Khan Saif, Writing by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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