Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer on Her Recent Visit to Afghanistan and the U.S. Commitment to Afghan Women

Special Briefing
Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
June 30, 2009


MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, actually. Good afternoon, all. We’re very fortunate to have with us this afternoon the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer. And she’s going to talk to you about her recent trip to Afghanistan and talk about how the U.S. is supporting Afghan women. So without further ado, I’ll turn it over to the ambassador.


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Hello, everybody. I’d like to make a few points before taking your questions.


The women in Afghanistan are critical to progress and stability in their war-torn country. It is in Afghanistan’s interest that human development and the unity of action take place. Only by men and women working together can Afghanistan move forward. The Secretary of State and Ambassador Holbrooke asked me to go to Afghanistan to reaffirm the United States’s commitment to Afghan women and to underscore the President and Secretary’s personal commitment to women’s rights.


We know that no country can prosper if half its people are left behind. And as the President said in Cairo, we recognize that our daughters can contribute as much to society as our sons. The truth of the matter is that countries that repress women also tend to be backward economically, and are more likely to be failed states.


Three points: First, we are reshaping our programs and intensifying our efforts to help women to participate more fully in society, thereby helping them to increase their contributions to their communities and their country. This includes working with men, working with community leaders to make it possible for men and women to jointly determine Afghanistan’s future.


One example of that reorientation of programs is the announcement that Ambassador Eikenberry and I made in Kabul of a new $27 million fund of small, flexible, rapid response grants targeted to empower Afghan women-led NGOs at the local level to serve their fellow citizens by providing them with technical assistance and support for programs ranging from economic development, literacy, training, skills training, and healthcare, among other programs that make a difference for all Afghans.


Second, Afghanistan is in the midst of an election campaign both for president and for the provincial councils. We have called for a campaign that is credible, inclusive, and secure, where men and women candidates can campaign with no restrictions on their freedom of movement and can be assured of protection. Further, the candidates should engage in a vigorous debate on all issues, including issues of concern to women. And women are likewise raising issues of concern to them with the candidates.


More women are running for provincial councils than did in the last election. And my travels took me to the Baghdis province, which is one of the poorest and remote parts of Afghanistan. And there, 11 impressive women are running for the provincial council, hoping to make a difference for the future of their country. Women want to be part of the solution.


Third, there is progress in some areas, but not in others. Security remains a paramount challenge. Violence against women and girls is endemic and much remains to be done, including access to institutions of justice, civic education, and prosecution of the crimes. More girls are in school, but the Taliban have eroded some of that progress. Last year alone, they burned or shut down more than 700 schools, and thousands of girls are now without access to formal education.


More women are participating politically in the parliament and in local government. Many are engaged in the media, which is defined by freedom of expression. Civil society is more robust. Women’s organizations increasingly speak with a collective voice and act in a coordinated fashion. They are a stronger and more unified constituency today than in a few years back. And there is a cadre of women leaders – business, government, and media, civil society – and they are an impressive group, yet their potential is not fully tapped. There is only one minister in the cabinet and she is powerless. There is a low percentage of women in the civil service. There is only one governor, in Bamiyan. And women are rarely invited to decision-making forums.


Economic opportunity is critical if the people are going to see results in their everyday lives, and we are committed to a greater focus on activities like agriculture, animal husbandry, and other kinds of productive livelihoods, including access to microcredit focused on very small business development, which is also critically important. Progress in Afghanistan must be measured not just in military terms, but also in terms of social, political, and economic participation of women in rebuilding Afghanistan and in the safeguarding of their human rights.


And now, I’m happy to take your questions.


MR. WOOD: Before asking your questions, if you could just identify yourselves and your news organizations, we greatly appreciate it.


Why don’t we go to Kim.


QUESTION: I have one quick question about the number of women running for local council. I don’t know if you know that. But also, I wanted to get an update from you on what you heard in your conversations in Afghanistan about the Personal Status Law, which has been under review. Just a few days ago, there was a demonstration in support of that law. A thousand people turned up, including 300 women. What is your assessment of how women feel about the law, and what President Karzai is willing to do about it or not in parliament?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: I raised the Shia Personal Status Law with the minister of justice who has had it under active review, as well as with President Karzai, as well as with the women leaders in civil society.


Where it stands now is the women have told me that they are pleased with the commitment that is represented in the revisions and reforms that have been made, as they have seen that draft. And only a few days ago, they met with President Karzai who told them that he would support those revisions and reforms. The women are hoping that this will take place before the election, but it is not clear.


So that’s where things stand. The minister of justice has incorporated the revisions and reforms that the women have been seeking. They have told me that they are satisfied with those that they have seen at the last such opportunity. And President Karzai has assured them in a recent meeting that he will sign on to them. So that’s the current status.


QUESTION: What if it doesn’t pass through parliament before the elections?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, there – no one has indicated that it’s going to take effect prior to any action. And if it doesn’t take effect prior to the election, we can only imagine whether or not there will be changes made that aren’t satisfactory or what will occur. So I think that’s one of the reasons that the women’s community is quite eager to see a satisfactory resolution, one that they have personally reviewed, and are satisfied with actually taking effect. But it hasn’t happened yet.


MR. WOOD: Elise.


QUESTION: Elise Labott with CNN. Thank you. Just to follow up on that – I mean, and the fact that you were talking about there’s only one minister, and that’s she’s powerless, and that women are not invited, it sounds like there’s a problem with the culture within the country of not treating women equally that is from the top down and the bottom up.


And so given all the kind of security issues and important kind of national security issues that you have with Afghanistan, how do you instill upon the government how important that is to you? I mean, you know, are there aid programs you can condition to make sure that they treat women better? And, you know, if the government isn’t going to make this a priority, how can you ensure that they do so?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I think that’s a very good question. And I do think there are issues of culture, but there are also issues of political will, and that is one of the reasons I made the trip and why I met with so many of the ministers, as well as candidates for president and members of the parliament. In this upcoming election, we made it clear that it is important for the candidates to have women’s platforms, to discuss the role of women in Afghan society and the reforms that they are endorsing and the kind of progress they want to see. And the women are eager to see that kind of discussion as well.


It is interesting that in the last few days, several of the candidates have spoken about their women’s platform and President Karzai met with key members of the women’s community and said to me that he was intending to meet with them again just a few days later.


Now, we know what the hoopla of a campaign can mean even in this country. But I think it is critical to reinforce the importance of these issues in the next two months in which the campaign will ensue. Clearly, there has to be a will at the top and there’s got to be heat at the bottom. And these kinds of progressive steps are only going to happen to the extent that there is that will, there is that sense of greater empowerment and participation on the part of the women, and that there is a visible sense of the reality changing on the ground in terms of progress.


And to the extent that women can participate both in the decision making and in actually working with the men in their localities and their provinces to bring about that kind of change, particularly economic change, that will devolve to the kind of cultural changes that are critical. But as I said to the leaders, it is important that they speak out about these issues both in terms of women’s participation, but also in terms of some of the egregious activities that are ongoing in the society. And more specifically, I underscored the violence against women, which is certainly not acceptable.


MR. WOOD: Goyal.


QUESTION: Thank you. Goyal Raghibur from India Globe and Asia Today. Madame, your mission to Afghanistan to meet especially the women’s groups may be first of its kind. What have you seen after talking to those women that they are fearing any threats from al-Qaida (inaudible) going to school and all that? Those are still there?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, certainly, they are still there. There are – as I said in my opening statement, that there are ongoing problems. But what I also saw are women who clearly want to be part of the solution. They want to be able to make a difference in their society. And most basically, they want to be able to see the kind of change in their lives that will give them a sense that a better future is possible for them and their families. And they are acting on all levels.


I mean, as I mentioned, we went out to a province that was extremely remote and extremely poor. It’s difficult to describe the environment. And there, I saw men and women in a room talking about their aspirations for this election, the women candidates speaking better than I at this microphone in terms of the compelling nature of their efforts to run for office. They clearly wanted to be protected in that process. They clearly wanted to be able to move around. But they want to make a difference. That’s the bottom line. They want a better life. And what we are trying to do is help galvanize those kinds of efforts so that indeed they can pay off in a better future.


QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. In the past, there were some reports that they were not very much happy with President Karzai’s government because al-Qaidas were there to help them out rather than the government or the government officials because of corruptions and other. So how are they going to come off now or coping with this problem?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, it’s an ongoing effort, clearly, and there has been progress. And they see every tangible step forward as something that will eventually get them to their ultimate goal of a better future for Afghanistan. But it’s a process that is not a neat one that goes in a linear line, and there are setbacks as much as there are steps forward sometimes. But there is certainly an effort on the part of the women with whom I’ve spoken and met with at great length to really be full participants in creating that better future.


MR. WOOD: Mary Beth.


QUESTION: Ambassador, thank you. When you mentioned the $27 million fund, the Rapid Response grants, is that part of – I think in the supplemental there was $100 million – am I correct – for Afghanistan, for women’s NGOs. And how does that compare to what existed before? Is this a big increase, a small increase, or –


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, some of the money, Mary Beth, comes out of the pipeline. Some of it is existing money that is now being moved into this area. Some of it will come out of the supplemental. There are additional resources there that will be tapped. But it is a response to the ongoing request that more progress could be made at the local level if resources could go in. And these are not huge grants, a grant at a time necessarily, but grants that can go in can make a real difference, can contribute to the betterment of what is taking place in the local areas and also grow the capacity of the women to make a greater contribution.


So there will be more of that, because it’s obviously – it’s going to be something that is very closely overseen by our Embassy in Afghanistan. Ambassador Tony Wayne has arrived there in the last week to oversee our assistance programs, and he will be playing a pivotal role in this. He was present with me on some of my travels outside of Kabul, as well as for this announcement. So we are making a more concerted effort to empower people locally to bring about the kinds of changes that can show immediate results in terms of their lives and their ability to make a contribution.


QUESTION: Hi, Farah Stockman with The Boston Globe. I just got back from Kabul, actually, and I guess we overlapped. But when I was there, one of the things a lot of people were talking about in the aid community was the proliferation of ambassadors at the Embassy. I think you’re one of eight ambassador-level people who were going in and out of Kabul.


How does that work? I mean, is it a total net gain for us? Or, I mean, can you describe that?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: I think it’s a net plus for us, frankly, because it shows a real commitment. And there’s delineation of authority in all of these people who are arriving, some with considerable experience. And I think that particularly, for example, in Ambassador Wayne’s case, to have somebody truly focused on this piece, working in close collaboration with the leadership team there, will make a difference.


So I think it’s – it wouldn't be done if we didn’t see it as something that will really create a greater continuing, ongoing emphasis in those critical areas that these individuals are going to oversee.


QUESTION: Lalit Jha from Pajhwok Afghan News. What will be your recommendation to the new Afghan president to improve the (inaudible) of women in the country?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, you know, women want the same thing the world over, and that is they want to have their rights protected, they want to be respected, and they want to make a contribution in terms of the life of their society economically and politically, and they want to access education and healthcare. That’s what any leader should try to make happen, because all the data today shows that investments in women have the single most effective payoff in terms of poverty alleviation and the general prosperity of a country; and where the exact opposite takes place in its worst forms, we have imploding societies and failed states.


So it is in leaders’ interest to make these kinds of investments. But as I said earlier to the answer to the first question, what’s often missing is the political will to do that. But in the long term, it would create a far brighter picture in terms of future progress.


QUESTION: Do you think the condition of women has improved post-Taliban era? Are the women –


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, as I said, there have been many improvements, which I pointed out in my statement, but there hasn’t been enough. And so we have to keep working at these issues, and certainly on behalf of the women there if we want to bring stability and a better future to the country.


QUESTION: Ambassador, good afternoon. (Inaudible) from Voice of America. You said the role of women in politics needs to be taken seriously. What did you hear are the issues that are mostly standing out on women’s paths in political field? And also, how many womens are being supportive of other candidate women that are there, I mean, for presidential or provincial elections?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, there are two female candidates for president. I think they’re both still in the race. And then there are a hundred and some – and we can get the exact number – running for the provincial councils, but in excess of the actual number of seats allotted to women for the provincial councils. So there’s been more – there is more participation at this point, which is very gratifying.


The women want to make sure that in terms of their campaigns and their efforts at their election, that they have that kind of freedom of movement and protection to enable them, just as the male candidates want to have the same ability to move around to make their voices heard and to be protected in the process.


Beyond that, the women are very eager to have the candidates talk about the issues that are of great concern to them. Often these are issues that are never raised. And the issues range from the security issue, which is paramount, to issues of participation, to the quality of their lives, to their representation and decision making. It’s a range of issues. And I think to the extent that there is a more robust discussion of those issues, it has to devolve ultimately to the betterment of their situation.


QUESTION: Like women in parliament, did they gather around and show some sort of a support for these candidates?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: For the women candidates?


QUESTION: Did (inaudible) have any reservations? Yes.


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, the parliamentary elections will be coming up and they will be running themselves. But the women in parliament have become much more sophisticated in terms of the role that they play, in terms of the issues that they are putting forward. For example, there’s a law for the elimination of violence against women, which is a critical piece of legislation that has been undergoing review, a satisfactory review to this point, and will shortly be within the committee process in the parliament where the women, among others, need to be playing a very significant leadership role.


QUESTION: Thank you.


MR. WOOD: Right here, please.


QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. My name is Monica Gabriel. I’m with My question is: Have you noticed a conflict between steps being taken to defend against human rights violations and inequality, and Afghan women’s desire to protect Afghan culture and even their Muslim faith? And if so, what steps are being taken to deal with that?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, that kind of reconciliation between particularly religious views in the culture and with progress are often viewed as somehow in opposition. But some of the progress that’s been made has been made thanks to mullahs, who take up these issues in their Friday services in a very constructive way. Violence against women is not something that is condoned in the Koran. Women’s economic participation fits in with Khadija and her role in terms of the history of the religion with the prophet.


So there are – religion in and of itself is not the problem. It’s what extremists and others do to say that religion condones this kind of horrific behavior to women. And so I see more and more women using their religion in a very positive way to support the kind of progress they want to see occur. I see more women joining them in that progress, particularly some of the success with the mullahs. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a long road to go.


QUESTION: Right. And when you spoke of reorienting programs, are programs such as family planning programs part of it? And if so, does that meet some kind of cultural faith-based opposition?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: That does not seem – the family planning issue has not risen, to my knowledge, as an issue in that category. But women’s health, and related to that family planning, is a very critical issue. Women suffer the highest – or second highest mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, in Afghanistan. The lifespan for women is 40-some years. One out of every four children dies below the age of five. So there are very, very, very serious health issues that have to be addressed. A lot of the work we’re doing, in fact, goes to those issues. That’s why I met with the minister of health, who has got a real serious effort that’s gone forward.


Certainly, we have, in the 13 PRTs in which we’re engaged to put a focus on that, working with the ministry and other governments are doing that in the areas in which they are engaged, as well as the multilateral institutions. So this is a very big challenge in the country, the quality of health generally, but particularly the health of women and children.


MR. WOOD: The last two questions, Lach and then Jill.


QUESTION: Okay. I’m Lachlan Carmichael from AFP. Hi, Ambassador. I just wanted to check that you’re on the same wavelength with people at the local and national levels in Afghanistan. Do (inaudible) accept easily your point that women’s development is key – sorry, including women is key to the nation’s development, or the corollary that if they fail to include women, they’ll have – hamper development?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I guess it depends who you talk to. Some people implement it vigorously, and others don’t pay any attention to it. So I think it is something that we need to put forward more vigorously, which is what we’re doing, which is one of the reasons I made the trip. It is really critical to seeing progress in Afghanistan, and it is – it’s got to work in mesh with everything else that we’re doing. But --


QUESTION: Who doesn’t see it that way? Can you --


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, obviously, you can look at the evolution of what’s happening in the country, and there are forces that are resistant, clearly. But I think if people see more progress at all levels, men and women, then this is going to be something that we might call a no-brainer.


QUESTION: You’re saying it’s not at the provincial level, that they don’t see it?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: I think more has to be done at the national level, just as more has to be done at the provincial and local levels. But where it’s happening, there is a lot of coming together in a successful way.


MR. WOOD: Last question, Jill.


QUESTION: Thank you. Jill Dougherty from CNN. Civilian development is so important to the strategy in Afghanistan. And when you were on the ground actually seeing what’s going on, was there anything that changed your mind about the strategy as it’s being carried out right now, anything that you would change? And if there’s feedback, how do you formally present that – to the Secretary, to the President, or how does that happen?


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, one of the things that was reinforced on the ground is how critical it is for people at the very local level to see change in their lives, to be able to have a livelihood, to be able to care for their families, to be able to not feel threatened in terms of their well-being from the conflict that surrounds them. So that, and I think the fact that we are moving more and more of our efforts to that level, is something that we have heard and seen and are responding to. So that’s really important.


In terms of ongoing feedback, we are now speaking to a wide range of Afghans both in the capital, beyond the capital, in the provinces. And they know, both in terms of working with increasing numbers of members of the Embassy staff who are moving out across the country, as well as to us and others who are in direct contact with them, that they’ve got an open line to tell us how it’s going, where the progress is coming, what the setbacks are, what the obstacles are, and how we might better help them in the future.


MR. WOOD: Thank you all.




PRN: 2009/666