Remarks at the Georgetown University Symposium "Advancing Afghan Women"

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Georgetown University
Washington, DC
November 15, 2013

Thank you. Thank you, Hillary. Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Hillary, for a very, very generous introduction. And thank you most of all for the remarkable work that you have done. I think you’re over here, Hillary. Here we go. (Laughter.) Get you over there. That’s my job, seat the former First Lady/Secretary. (Laughter.)

What a pleasure to be here, and distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, President DeGioia, thank you for this. Unbelievable, one of my favorite venues in the world. Madam Secretary/Senator/First Lady/everything – (laughter) – and former First Lady Bush, it’s great to be here with you, Laura. To our ambassadors and everybody else, I’m really happy to be here. For all the men studying here at Georgetown who sat in or sit in classrooms where Bill Clinton sat so many years ago, my advice to you is this: Study hard, go to Oxford, become governor of your state – (laughter) – and then maybe you can marry one of the country’s remarkable Secretaries of State. (Laughter and applause.)

I think everybody here knows that nobody has done more to advance the cause of women and the cause of Afghan women, together with Laura Bush, in our foreign policy directly than Secretary Clinton. And she took the helm of the State Department at a particularly challenging time, a critical moment in the history of the war, and she has worked tirelessly to remind all of us that this fight is not just waged on the battlefield. It’s a fight for the lives of Afghanistan’s people and their future, and it is a fight, above all, for universal values and aspirations, and I think we all owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for the work that she has done. Thank you, Hillary, appreciate it. (Applause.)

I want to thank Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace, and Security; I want to thank the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council; the George W. Bush Institute; and the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People for co-hosting and coming together to bring this remarkable event together here today. I particularly want to thank all of you. You are a remarkable group of women, absolutely extraordinary, and I was pleased to meet a couple of you in Afghanistan. Thank you for coming here, and I know people will really enjoy hearing the program later.

I want to express my gratitude also to former First Lady Laura Bush, as Hillary did in her comments and her introduction. She really helped lead the effort to advance opportunities for women in Afghanistan. And if you haven’t seen it yet today, she has a terrific op-ed in today’s Washington Post. And Madam First Lady, we thank you very much for your leadership also. (Applause.) And as Hillary did, I want to pay particular tribute and thanks to our nation’s first Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer and her successor, Cathy Russell, who has just returned from Afghanistan. This is very special for me to be able to be here today, particularly with these extraordinary women who have lived their lives every single day to make sure that all women can pursue their potential and live free of violence.

And we all know that creating opportunities for women is not just the right thing to do. It’s also a strategic necessity. Societies where women are safe, where women are empowered to exercise their rights and to move their communities forward – these societies are more prosperous and more stable – not occasionally, but always. And nowhere is the pursuit of this vision more important, and in many ways more compelling and immediate and possible than in Afghanistan.

If I had to walk blind into a district in Afghanistan and I could only ask one question to determine how secure it was and how much progress it was making, I would ask, “What proportion of the girls here are able to go to school?” There’s no question in my mind that investing in Afghan women is the surest way to guarantee that Afghanistan will sustain the gains of the last decade and never again become a safe haven for international terrorists. On my many trips to Afghanistan as a senator and as Secretary of State, I have met with an array of Afghan Government officials. I’ve met with businesspeople, development experts, diplomats. I’ve met with our brave troops, as well as our brave -- shared responsibility, participation by the international community, the international troops who are there, our counterparts – all of whom have sacrificed for the promise of a safe and secure and a sovereign Afghanistan.

But I actually come back time and again to my very first trip to Kabul as Secretary of State, when I met a remarkable woman who is changing Afghanistan. Her name is Roya Mahboob. Now, Roya is chief executive of a software development firm called Citadel. And the local authorities did absolutely everything they could in order to stop her dead in her tracks. They even pressured her family to close her company. But she, like a lot of the women sitting here and like so many women across Afghanistan, absolutely refused to be intimidated. And the first time that she competed for an Afghan Government project, guess what? She went up against six businesses led by men and she won. And it’s a good thing she won because Roya has invested almost all of her profits to provide internet access to 35,000 girls in Herat. And believe me, she’s just getting started. Today, she has plans to help five times as many girls across Afghanistan.

Now I’m sure you’ll hear this in the discussion in a little while – it is hard enough to start your own business anywhere else in the world, but to start it in Afghanistan, to balance the books, build a revenue stream, fight against incredible outrage in the local community, is sheer guts and courage and determination. She never backed down. Instead, she’s using her talents and her money in order to connect Afghans of all ages – men and women, boys and girls – to a global community and a global economy where all of us are connected to each other. That’s the world we live in today, and that’s the world that women in Afghanistan want to share in too.

As Roya said to me, she doesn’t want to be the only woman who’s an entrepreneur in Afghanistan. She wants all women to have that opportunity. And she believes nothing should stop any of them. Now, I’m serious when I tell you that I think of Roya and the women like her that I’ve met in Afghanistan. Every time I hear the amazing numbers that illustrate how far this country has come since 2001 and that underscore what Secretary Clinton was saying a few minutes ago about how critical our choices are with respect to the future – in 2001, back then, there were only 900,000 Afghan children in school, and all of them were boys. Today, nearly 8 million students are in school, and more than a third of them are girls. Think about what that means for the future.

In 2001, maternal mortality was 1,600 per 100,000 births; today, it’s down by 80 percent. In 2001, life expectancy for the average Afghan was 42 years; today, it’s 62 years and rising. In 2001, 9 percent of Afghans had access to basic healthcare; today, 60 percent of Afghans live within an hour of basic health services. In 2001, there was only one television station and it was owned by the government; today, there are 75 stations and only two – and all of those but two are privately owned. And in 2001, there were virtually no cellphones in the country; today, there are 18 million covering about 90 percent of residential areas. 80 percent of Afghan women now have access to a cellphone, meaning that they are connected to their families, their friends, and most importantly, they’re connected to the world and to their futures.

Thanks to entrepreneurs like Roya, Afghan women will also now be connected to the internet too. Ten years ago, it just would have been unfathomable to imagine this. But because of so many individual acts of courage, this is the future that we are now watching Afghan women build. And as Secretary Clinton and Laura Bush and Ambassadors Verveer and Russell powerfully remind us, when Afghan women live longer and go to school in greater numbers, all Afghan families and their communities will grow stronger. When Afghan women run their own businesses, all Afghans profit from a more diverse, dynamic, and inclusive economy. And when Afghan women hold public office at the local and national levels, all Afghans gain a stronger voice in their communities.

That is the vision behind the United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which President Obama directed to be implemented two years ago and which Hillary spoke about just a few minutes ago. And that’s why we are committed to bringing the perspectives of women and their full participation to bear on these opportunities and challenges in Afghanistan going forward.

Now what has moved me – and I mean moved me – in my meetings with an impressive group of Afghan women entrepreneurs is that when Afghan women move forward, believe me, they never want to go back. Not to the days when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Not to the days before the Taliban when the country was torn apart by violence. And that is why it is so important that we keep investing in and defending the progress that empowers Afghan women, as well as men, to be able to have their voices heard and to buy into their future and shape their future. What has been achieved is nothing less than remarkable, and it would have been more than a tragedy if the world ever allowed this progress to be threatened or, worse yet, to be abandoned.

So the question now is: Where do we go from here? Because as we think about the future, we are mindful of the challenges that Afghan women continue to face. This is a critical moment. Many of the women that I’ve met share very legitimate concerns that the gains of the past decade could be lost. All that I talked about could be wiped out. And the truth is their anxiety that I hear when I visit Afghanistan, or you’ll hear today, it’s palpable. Despite the significant achievements of Afghan women and girls, many challenges still remain. And we remember too well the difficulties, the difficult history that led to the decades of war in Afghanistan. We know the costs of walking away. Believe me, Afghan women know the costs because they have always paid the steepest price.

So I say to you today: As Afghanistan sees women standing up in Afghanistan to take control of their country’s future – not only for themselves, but for all Afghans – we have to be determined that they will not stand alone. America will stand up with them as they shape a strong and united Afghanistan that secures the rightful place in the community of nations. And that is why President Obama and President Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement last year that lays out our mutual commitments. And that’s why America’s relationship with Afghans is changing; it’s not ending.

There’s a lot to do, so much to do, and obviously the road ahead is not easy. The violence that has plagued Afghanistan for decades has left very deep wounds, and it is going to take time to heal. We also know that security is going to be a real challenge. We know that Afghans have to strengthen the rule of law. They have to improve access to justice. We also know that discrimination and violence against women continue to be major problems.

But I know every one of these women and the women in Afghanistan today will remain determined, and we have an obligation to remain determined and stand by them. We intend to make clear that securing the rights of Afghan women and girls is not just a challenge for this moment; it’s a generational challenge. In fact, we’ve already made a significant down payment, but make no mistake – finishing this job is going to take courage, and not just the courage of women in Afghanistan.

As a proud father of two daughters, I have many times been reinforced in the fact that this job will require the courage of men, too. In Afghanistan, it will take the courage of every man who defends his daughter’s right to an equal education; it will take the courage of every brother who challenges a law that keeps his sister from owning property or opening a business; and every husband who not only promises that the cycle of domestic violence can stop with him, but who actually proves it. We have spent a great blood and treasure in Afghanistan, and that makes even greater our obligation to get this right.

Yes, there are challenges ahead. For sure, the transition is going to be difficult. But without question, there’s a world of possibilities staring us in the face. In fact, the transition that we are talking about and now working on is really about three transitions: a political transition, a security transition, and an economic transition. And no surprise, Afghan women are playing an integral role in all of them.

Just look at the political transition. We all know that the single most important milestone over the next year is the peaceful transfer of power from President Karzai to a democratically elected successor. The elections have to be on time. They have to be accountable and transparent and free and fair and accessible. They have to be inclusive and result in an outcome that is perceived as legitimate by all segments of Afghan society above all, but also by the international community. Above all, though elections obviously always entail competition and debate, they’ve got to be a unifying moment for the country, not a divisive one.

As we speak, as we are here, Afghan women are leading the charge to ensure that the elections next year are credible, inclusive, and transparent. You have – Gulalay Achekzai is one of those women. Gulalay is a teacher by profession, but she’s always had this passion for public service. She used to work as a human rights commissioner in Kandahar. Today, she’s serving on the Independent Election Commission. She told President Karzai she has only one character flaw – that she fears no one. (Laughter.)

Now we are deeply encouraged by the Gulalays and others who are taking part in this, by the hundreds of women from all over the country, who are running for positions on provincial councils. And we are very pleased to lend our support, in partnership with the United Nations, to train female volunteers as they facilitate secure access for women at the polls. There is no question that lasting security and prosperity in a unified Afghanistan will take root only when women have as loud a voice as men – not just on election day, but every day.

The success of the political transition is essential. It’s the prerequisite to the future stability of Afghanistan. But make no mistake – it’s not enough, it’s not sufficient, it won’t do the job alone. That’s why the United States firmly supports and will continue to support an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation effort as the surest way to end the violence and bring lasting stability to Afghanistan and the region.

But peace is only possible if it respects the historic achievements that Afghanistan has made over the past decade, all those things I listed and talked about, including above all the protection of the rights of all Afghans – both men and women. And as part of the outcome of any process, the Taliban and other armed opposition groups have to end the violence, break ties with al-Qaida, accept Afghanistan’s constitution, including its provisions on women’s rights. Those are the standards which will lead us in this effort. There can be no compromise on these points. And there can be no peace without respecting the rights of all Afghans, and Afghan women have to have a seat at the table.

Afghan women are also at the forefront of the second part of the transition – the security transition. This is one of the most stunning things. You saw it in the video. These folks in uniform – unprecedented. They’re joining the army and the police, and they’re serving as judges, prosecutors in some of the most conservative parts of the country. It’s an extraordinary transformation. My team recently met with a female police officer from Kabul. For those of you who have been to Afghanistan, you’ll know there aren’t too many female police officers, and even fewer of them are willing to step forward and tell their story.

But on her way home from work one evening, this particular police officer heard another woman screaming inside a house. And when she heard the cries, she didn’t run away. She didn’t call someone else to come and do the job. She went right up to the house, knocked down the door in order to help. Police officer went inside and she saw a woman inside badly beaten on the ground and her husband was standing over her. Without any hesitation – she was not intimidated, not an ounce of fear – she pushed the husband aside and took the victim to her own house in order to record her statement and make a report. Believe me – believe me – that’s courage.

And it’s an example that all Afghans can be proud of and follow. They can be proud that their security and law enforcement forces are growing stronger by the day, more capable by the day. And of course, they can be proud that this past summer, the Afghan National Security Forces took over the lead responsibility in providing security all across the country.

Now, as you know, we have made a commitment along with our NATO partners to continue to advise, train, and support the Afghan forces beyond 2014, should Afghans approve in the next – within the next two weeks the Bilateral Security Agreement. And make no mistake – bringing women into the force and supporting their safe and meaningful participation is going to be a key part of this transition.

I’m pleased to report to you now that we are closer than ever to completing this task of defining our new partnership with Afghanistan, going well into the future. The Bilateral Security Agreement, when it is completed, will help both countries to fulfill the longstanding commitment that we made to a security partnership after 2014. But I want to underscore again that nothing – neither this agreement when completed, nor the assistance that we provide – will replace the role that the Afghan people themselves will play determining the future of their country.

Afghan women are also taking enormous risk to support Afghanistan’s third transition. That’s the economic transition. And women like Hassina Sayed are leading the charge.

I met Hassina in March. She started a trucking company, I think, about 10 years ago. She started it with $500. Now, she has 500 trucks. Of her 650 employees, 300 are women who not so long ago would absolutely never have had the opportunity they have today. She told me that she always knew she wanted to be a businesswoman when she grew up. And I asked why, and she said simply, “Because then I’ll get to be my own boss.” (Laughter.) Now, obviously, that’s not just an Afghan trait; that’s a universal aspiration. (Laughter.)

But Afghan women like Hassina are forming connections not just within Afghanistan, but all across the region. Actually, her trucking company is doing a great deal of work in “the ’Stans” and outside of Afghanistan in order to bring supplies and things, food and so forth, into the country. And what I found is that all of the Afghans understand they may be landlocked, but they’re not trapped, and they refuse to be trapped.

Afghanistan is linked everywhere by roads, railways, products, markets. And the reality is that Afghanistan’s fortunes are tied to the whole region, just as the future of the region is tied to the stability of Afghanistan. We call this the New Silk Road vision, which Secretary Clinton launched in July of 2011. It’s a vision we believe in, and it’s a vision we’re going to continue to work hard to implement.

Hassina knows that the benefits of investing in women and girls are not limited to one village, one province, or one country alone. They ripple out across the borders. You all remember that great quote of Robert Kennedy’s about rippling and creating a huge current that sweeps down the mightiest walls of oppression. That’s what’s happening. And that’s why investing in the training and mentoring of Afghan women entrepreneurs is so important. That’s why we launched the regional economic women’s initiative in Bishkek and in Dhaka in order to link female entrepreneurs to markets in South and Central Asia. And that strengthens those women to have those connections to those other parts of the region. That’s why we’re investing in the education of Afghan girls, so they can break the cycle of poverty and become community leaders and engaged citizens in ways that inspire and actually strengthen their neighbors’ willingness to join them.

That is the future that, even here in Gaston Hall today, we are all building together. And that’s the story that I want to leave you with today. As I was flying back from Kabul in March, my staff handed me a letter from a young Afghan girl who had earned a scholarship from the State Department to study at the American University of Afghanistan. And this young girl has exactly the same courage as women like Roya, Hassina, Gulalaya, who are marching forward to define this new future for Afghanistan. She has the same vision as leaders like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush, who know that no country can succeed if it leaves half of its people behind. The phrase that Hillary and I both loved as we heard it about the bird with two wings can’t fly with one wing.

One line in that girl’s letter stood out to me. She wrote about the importance of education and how her goal is not just to help herself, but to lift her community, her society, and her country, just like Roya, Gulalay, and Hassina are doing today. You know what she wrote, very simply? She said, “I want to be one of them.” That’s the power of example. That’s the ripple fanning out to create the current. Think about that for a minute. She feels ownership over the future that she is creating in Afghanistan, and that’s not something that her sisters or her mother could say even a decade ago. But girls all over Afghanistan – believe me, I promise you – they are saying it today and they are living that dream thanks to the courage and the leadership of women themselves in Afghanistan.

Our responsibility is clear. We need to make sure that they succeed. Because this is one of those benchmark moments – not just for them, but for all of us – in what we care about, what we fight for, and who we are. As we move forward, just keep thinking about that young girl who wrote that letter and the inspiration that she draws from women like Roya, Gulalay, and Hassina. She just wants to be one of them. And making that happen is going to take every single one of us. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Now we get to the really exciting part of the program. I want to invite Secretary Clinton, Mrs. Bush, Anita Haidary, and her extraordinary colleagues to all come up on stage so we have an opportunity to listen to Anita for a moment, and then I think we’re going to go out and they’re going to set up the chairs and the program will continue. Can I invite all of you up here, please? (Applause.)

PRN: 2013/1422