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Afghan Women's Rights Activist Pushes For Inclusive Peace Process After Kabul Bombing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

School-age girls - they appear to have been deliberately targeted this past weekend in Afghanistan. Bombs exploded in front of their school in a western neighborhood of Kabul, the latest horrific attack in a string of horrific attacks in the capital and beyond. We can't say for sure who did this. No group has claimed responsibility. We can say the apparent targeting of teenage girls brings into sharp and painful relief the challenges ahead for Afghanistan. As the U.S. military begins to pull out, as violence escalates, what will it mean for women's rights, for human rights? - questions to put to our next guest. Shaharzad Akbar chairs Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, and she is on the line from Kabul.

Welcome.

SHAHARZAD AKBAR: Thank you, Mary.

KELLY: Would you start by describing the school, describing the neighborhood in Kabul where this attack took place?

AKBAR: Yes. So Barchi, in West Kabul, is one of the poorest areas in Kabul. Most of these students come from very poor backgrounds. Their fathers are day laborers. Some of the students were also weaving carpets in addition to going to school and studying to support their families. And the school is one of the bigger schools in that area that was unfortunately attacked in what seems to be a deliberate attack on the school and the students and especially female students.

KELLY: I know today was a national day of mourning for the whole country. Can you describe - just give us a little bit of a sense of what Kabul feels like? Are people out and about? Does it feel safe to move around the streets?

AKBAR: Well, we're on the eve of Eid, which is a festival of Muslims after a month of fasting. But it does not feel like we are, you know, a day or two left to Eid at all. There is this sense of grief and fear and anxiety. I mean, a lot of violence, unfortunately, happens in Afghanistan. And some ways, violence becomes normalized. But the fact that this attack, you know, targeted civilians, targeted girls, schoolgirls who were leaving the school in this poor neighborhood that has been attacked before as well - it just was devastating. And I think we're all in a shock. We're all trying to process what this means.

KELLY: As someone who advocates for human rights, for women's rights, what worries you most as you look ahead to the coming weeks and months?

AKBAR: Well, one of the possible scenarios, unfortunately, is an all-out war, even further escalation of violence that's already unbearable. And that will make everyone vulnerable. It will especially make women vulnerable, children vulnerable. Short of that, of course, there are also concerns about what would a political process look like, to what extent it will be inclusive. If there are no women in the room or very few women in the room, of course there will be no meaningful discussion about women's rights in the future of Afghanistan or even human rights in the future of Afghanistan. If there are no victims of war who are being represented and being heard by both parties, there will be no attention to justice and human rights. So we are trying to do everything we can to prevent that from happening, to encourage parties to talk to each other, to push for a cease-fire and to push for an inclusive process.

KELLY: And how do you do that? What does that look like?

AKBAR: Part of it is documenting civilian casualties and talking about them and reminding people in the parties about the cost of war for civilians, for people who are not in active combat but are paying with their lives and livelihoods, like those schoolchildren in Kabul. Part of it is putting pressure on the international community, including the U.S. and the U.N., about the responsibility that they have to the Afghan civilians and to the Afghan public in general and reminding them that military withdrawal should not mean, you know, forgetting Afghanistan and the Afghan public in this difficult moment. And a part of it is working with our own communities and elders and influential people in civil society and media to protect and expand the civic space to enable us to have a more inclusive process.

KELLY: I was looking at your Twitter feed. And before you say anything else, before you give your professional title, you write, mom. You're a mom. That's the first identifier you give yourself. May I ask how you explain to your child or children what's happening in your country right now?

AKBAR: Well, my son is turning 2 on Thursday.

KELLY: Oh, OK, (laughter) so it's a short conversation so far.

AKBAR: (Laughter) So we are trying to protect him, but it's hard. I think as a mom, it has become harder because on the one hand, last year's attack on hospital just before his first birthday really shattered me - and this latest attack as well because I think about him and about his future in this country. And does he have a future in this country? But also because of the nature of my job, I really don't go anywhere public with my son because I don't want to put him at risk because of his affiliation with me. So it's, you know, parenting in conflict, I guess. Yeah, it's a different version of parenting.

KELLY: Gosh, yes, and parenting is hard to begin with. And parenting in conflict I can't imagine. What - we've been talking about what worries you. What gives you hope?

AKBAR: The Afghan people - despite the adversity and the conflict, Afghans have taken great steps to improve their lives, to improve the lives of their daughters, their children. Afghan women's movement is so mobilized, so energized, despite the violence - pushing for cease-fire, pushing for women's inclusion, pushing for human rights. That's what gives me hope.

KELLY: Shaharzad Akbar - she's chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, speaking to us there from Kabul.

Thank you.

AKBAR: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF O LAKE'S "MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.