Remarks at U.S. Agency for International Development's Event on "PROMOTE: Join Us to Empower Afghan Women"

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
New York City
September 23, 2014

Thank you so much, Dr. Shah, for having me here today. I’d also like to thank Minister Brende for Norway’s extraordinary efforts in support of Afghan women and girls and Director Zarifi for demonstrating the commitment of the government of Afghanistan to these issues. And finally, this discussion would not be complete without the participation of so many experts, especially Afghans, from the civil society community. It is such a privilege to have this opportunity to discuss concrete ways to continue supporting Afghan women and girls.

Let me begin by saying how thrilled I am that we have seen Afghanistan reach a political solution to the recent election crisis. It is no small feat to carry out a peaceful transition of power, especially in a country that has endured so many challenges.

I was also excited to see that President-elect Ghani has pledged to ensure that women are represented at the highest levels of the new government, including on the Supreme Court, where no female justice has ever served. This is exactly the type of change that so many of the advocates in this room – and the broader Afghan public – have hoped to see for so long. Afghan vision and leadership in elevating the status of women and girls are critical for lasting progress. Now these words need to be followed up with action. And the United States is committed to help.

As Dr. Shah and Assistant Administrator Sampler described, we are here today to discuss the PROMOTE initiative, which is aimed at empowering young female Afghan leaders. You have heard many of the details of this effort, so instead I would like to spend my time talking briefly about the importance of empowering Afghan women and girls.

In my job, I have the tremendous privilege of traveling to countries throughout the world to meet with girls, women, and men about the role of women in their societies. One thing is always immediately clear—those countries where women share equal rights with men and are fully empowered to participate in their communities do better on every front—including enjoying greater political stability and economic prosperity.

I think one of the most exciting things about Afghanistan is that it is still working to develop and implement the processes and structures that will guide its future. And I think this time of political transition provides a unique opportunity to advance gender equality.

Fortunately, Afghanistan has already made significant progress on a number of fronts.

Administrator Shah and Minister Brende talked about the progress and challenges women have made and still face. There has also been substantial progress in other areas.

In 2001, Afghanistan had less than 500 functioning health facilities; today there are more than 2000. As a result, more than 60 percent of the population lives within a 1-hour walking distance of a health facility. Since 2001, female literacy has seen meaningful increases and today more than 4 million girls are attending schools. Life expectancy for women has risen from 44 years in 2001 to an astonishing 64 years today.

And women are increasingly taking on more substantial roles in law enforcement and the Afghan National Security Forces.

But Afghanistan still faces endemic problems that must be addressed.

Violence against women and girls—including sexual violence—remains a grave problem, as it does in far too many countries. That is why it is so important that Afghanistan continue to implement the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

There are also too many women who remain excluded from the economy due to a variety of factors such as security concerns, geographic isolation, lack of education and cultural restrictions on mobility.

One issue that is particularly important to me is the range of challenges facing adolescent girls. In Afghanistan, as in many countries, girls are doing fairly well in primary school but too often fail to make a successful transition to secondary education. In fact, the number of girls who complete secondary education in Afghanistan is about 10 percent.

This is where I think we can really make a difference in influencing Afghanistan’s future. Healthy, educated, successful adolescent girls lead to healthy, educated, successful women and ultimately communities and societies.

When a girl receives an education, she is better able to improve the health and quality of life for herself, her family, and her community. It is also more likely that she can delay early marriage, which, unfortunately, remains a significant problem in Afghanistan.

Countries with higher levels of female secondary-school enrollment have lower infant mortality rates, lower birth rates, lower rates of HIV/AIDS, and better child nutrition. In fact, a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to live past the age of five.

Furthermore, according to the World Bank, every year of schooling increases a girl’s individual earning power by 10 to 20 percent, and the returns on secondary education are even higher.

This benefits entire communities, because young women have a 90 percent probability of investing their earned income back into their families. This is exactly what we need in Afghanistan – more women empowered to contribute economically to the future of their country. Our goal is to get these girls educated and then move them into the workforce – so that they can participate meaningfully in building the economic future of their country.

I think it is easy sometimes to let the steady stream of negative news coming out of Afghanistan convince us that further investment there is futile – that despite the work we have undertaken in partnership with the Afghan people – the progress of women in Afghan society is bound to backslide.

But this is not predestined. I’d like to share a few lines from a blog post written last year by the co-founder and executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security in Afghanistan, Wazhma Frogh, about the progress women have made in Afghanistan. She wrote:

“This progress is about thousands of female doctors who are now treating their patients with electronic medical aid and can prevent pregnant mothers from dying. This progress is about thousands of female nurses who were not even allowed to enter hospitals 12 years ago and this progress is also about thousands of young Afghan men and women who are journalists, day and night reporting on national and international interests to Afghans through over 50 television channels, hundreds of radio stations and hundreds of newspapers.”

No one wants to see any of the progress reversed. Afghan women – most of all – want to ensure these gains continue so that generations to come can continue to benefit from access to an education and basic health services. So that their daughters–alongside their sons–can freely run for political offices and work in business sectors helping to build the economy and support their families.

In his remarks Monday, President-elect Ghani said of women at the event – “In the face of these girls I can see future Afghan leaders.”

I believe the Promote program—and all the work we do together—can help make sure this becomes a reality. Thank you.