By Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL March 22 (Reuters) - Women members of an Afghan government council charged with seeking reconciliation with the Taliban have been sidelined from main consultations and are trying to forge a united voice within the council, one of the members said.
The 70-member High Peace Council, which has been struggling to carve out a role in the negotiations since the assassination of its chief, Burhanuddin Rabbani, last year, has nine women.
While the women attend peace workshops and meetings both in the country and abroad, Gulali Noor Safi said they were not involved in making major decisions.
"We are trying to be involved in the peace process but in my opinion, most of the time we're not included in major discussions," she said.
President Hamid Karzai set up the council two years ago consisting of members drawn from Afghanistan's different ethnic and political groups to try to negotiate with the Taliban to end the war now in its eleventh year.
But the council appears to have made little progress on its own, with U.S. diplomats separately engaging the Taliban in secret discussions abroad leading to an agreement on the establishment of a Taliban office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
The Taliban have since suspended the talks, blaming the United States for ignoring its demands.
Safi, who is also a member of parliament from the northern province of Balkh, said women were not opposed to holding negotiations with the Taliban so long as rights enshrined in the constitution were protected.
She said the women on the peace council had set up a committee to ensure issues related to women were addressed by the council in negotiations with the Taliban.
"Our mission is to figure out how to keep the role of women active in the High Peace Council and not have our presence serve only as a statistic," she said.
While attention has been focused on the Taliban, women in Afghanistan had concerns that the Karzai administration itself may give up some of the gains made in recent years, she said.
Karzai provoked outrage last month after he backed recommendations from clerics to segregate the sexes in the workplace. Another recommendation allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances, reminiscent of the Taliban period.
"What is worrying is the government backing the recommendations of the Ulema council," she said, referring to the clerics. "It is the government's responsibility to protect women's rights and not have them compromised. So long as they do so, then the Taliban will have to as well."
She said the women members of the peace council were travelling around the country to gather views on women's issues in any political settlement and present them to the council.
"We haven't reached the point of sitting down with the Taliban and negotiate. What we do in the peace council now is just discuss and promote ideas of peace," said Seddiqa Balkhi, another member of the council.
(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel)