Afghan Women and Girls: Building the Future of Afghanistan

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
February 23, 2010

Oral Testimony Before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women's Issues of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Written Testimony

I am honored to appear before you today to describe why women and girls are among the most powerful – but still largely underutilized – agents for change to advance security, stability, and development in Afghanistan. I request that my submitted written testimony be entered into the record, and I will briefly summarize from it. I’d also like to thank you, Senators, for the leadership you have shown on issues affecting Afghan women.

Our civilian assistance strategy in Afghanistan incorporates the values of human rights, good governance, and rule of law. Women’s empowerment in Afghanistan and their full and equal participation in their society are fundamental prerequisites for achieving this strategy.

The era of brutal repression by the Taliban has passed, yet on every measure of development and in every sphere, women in Afghanistan continue to suffer solely because they were born female.

In the political realm, women made immediate gains after the Taliban era. Many entered political life at the most senior levels. However, deteriorating security conditions have made their participation in public life more difficult. Their political gains today appear fragile and require urgent and sustained attention from the international community.

The legacy of the Taliban continues to limit women’s literacy levels, their ability to participate in the professional workforce, and the educational and healthcare infrastructure and resources available to them. Pervasive discrimination remains at every level of society, and Afghan women suffer high levels of domestic abuse and violence in many forms. This violence cannot be explained away as cultural or private; it is criminal and must be addressed as such.

In the face of so many deeply entrenched problems and barriers to progress, it would be tempting to see Afghan women as little more than the victims of the enormity of their circumstances, who have nothing to do with waging a successful counterinsurgency. Nothing could be further from the truth. I traveled to Afghanistan just before the 2009 presidential elections there to reaffirm our country’s commitment to Afghan women and to hear from them how they were faring.

To visit Afghanistan is to become aware of just how many capable Afghan women leaders risk their lives every day in order to work alongside men to create a better future for their country – women such as Arzo Qanih, an activist in the area of education, who presented recommendations on behalf of Afghan women at the recent International Conference in London on Afghan women, and who spoke passionately about the role that women must play in Afghanistan’s security, governance, and development.
My written testimony talks about many Afghan women who are working for progress in all fields – from the economy to government. I would like to add that it is particularly meaningful to have Dr. Sima Samar here to testify. After the overthrow of the Taliban, she made several trips to Washington in 2002 as the Minister for Women’s Affairs in the new Afghan government. Although the women had suffered unimaginable brutality under the Taliban, it was clear that if Afghanistan were to chart a successful new course, its women had to be part of the process. Sima was in many ways their voice to the world, and she worked to rally many of us to address the urgent needs that Afghan women had.

Many other women are helping to create a better life for the Afghan people in ways large and small: they are teachers, members of the police force, midwives, farmers, and provincial council members. Clearly, Afghan women are agents of democracy and change, and yet their potential is largely untapped. That pace of positive change can be accelerated if we work to remove the barriers that prevent them from working for the good of their country.

It is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if half its population is left behind. This is true the world over; it is no less true in Afghanistan.

On January 28, leaders from around the world gathered in London to discuss Afghanistan’s future. Secretary Clinton underscored the importance of women in Afghanistan’s development and unveiled the Women’s Action Plan, which is incorporated into our U.S. Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy, which we have distributed to the members of the Committee.

The Stabilization Strategy recognizes women as agents of change and underscores their importance to our civilian stabilization plan and our efforts to strengthen Afghan communities’ capacity to withstand the threat posed by extremism. It establishes women’s empowerment as critical to unleashing the full economic potential of the Afghan people.

To combat barriers to women’s political empowerment, the United States has launched a broad grassroots effort to train women at local levels and to build their capacity to take on leadership roles. We are also working with women and men in law enforcement and in the judicial system to diminish the impunity that allows the threats, intimidation and violence to continue that keep women out of public life.

Freeing women to participate in public life also frees them to participate in the economic activity of their nation. Jobs creation is among our most urgent goals, and agricultural development in Afghanistan is a top U.S. priority. The key to increasing agricultural productivity is to increase skilled human capital – and an efficient way to accomplish that is by training women.

To further build Afghanistan’s skilled workforce, as well as to extend the many other benefits of education, the United States has promoted programs that rebuild the education infrastructure to enable more girls to go to school and women to achieve literacy. We are also working to rebuild Afghanistan’s healthcare services, and particularly to change its maternal mortality rate, which is one of the worst in the world.

The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan addresses issues of security, economic and social development, good governance, and rule of law. The future security, stability, and development of Afghanistan depend in large part on the degree to which women have an active role in rebuilding its society and a voice in their nation’s political process. To reach that level of participation, women need to be included in the political process at all levels, including in greater numbers in civil service positions, and they must have an active role in any peace discussions. This principle is formulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which sets out women’s role in international peace and security. Women’s inclusion is critical for negotiations on lasting peace worldwide, but perhaps nowhere is this more critical than in Afghanistan. Their voices must be heard.

As reintegration efforts move forward, the United States is committed to ensuring that Afghan women’s rights will not be sacrificed. At the London Conference, Secretary Clinton made clear that reintegration of former Taliban can only take place if they renounce violence, renounce al-Qaida, and accept all the tenets of the Afghan constitution, including its commitment to protect women from violence and oppression. Afghan women want a process that promotes peace in their country, but they must be part of that process. Secretary Clinton introduced the Afghan women who attended the London Conference and honored them by saying, “They are among the women who have been working in Afghanistan for the last years…[T]hey are very much committed to their country’s future, but they’re also very committed to making sure that women in Afghanistan play their rightful role.”

If a peace process is to endure, women need to have a voice in the decision-making about the future of their country. Their rights must not be endangered or diminished in efforts to reconcile competing factions. There can be no progress, in Afghanistan or in any other part of the world, without women’s progress.