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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > From the Under Secretary > Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary > 2002

The U.S. Role in Afghanistan: From Relief Efforts to the Treatment of Women

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
Remarks to tthe League of Women Voters 45th Biennial Convention
Miami, Florida
June 17, 2002

On behalf of Secretary Powell, it is a great pleasure to join you at the 45th Biennial Convention of the League of Women Voters. I have enjoyed participating in the League’s Forum on International Affairs in the past, so I am delighted to renew my friendship with you. For more than 80 years, the League of Women Voters has helped America realize the full promise of democracy. Throughout your history, you have advocated forcefully for stronger and more inclusive democratic institutions. You have demonstrated the importance of responsibility -- both for government and for people, whose responsibility it is to actively and knowledgeably participate in democracy. In the early days of our nation, it was written that "Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge." By educating the American people about their civic duties and political choices, you have helped generations of Americans come to love our freedom and our democracy.

The League of Women Voters has helped America realize the promise of democracy. But I would like to speak today about a nation where democracy is unfortunately a promise not yet realized, a country where stability had become only a dim memory. Afghanistan is a nation that, as you know, has been a battleground for the better part of the last 23 years. Its economy has been broken; its infrastructure decimated; its people have been beaten down by hunger, disease, war and repression. And making this already bleak picture even bleaker is an ongoing 3-year drought that has further crippled Afghanistan’s ability to support its own people.

We all know of the oppressive conditions Afghan women suffered under during Taliban rule. Their roles in society were largely confined to the four walls of their homes as they had no opportunity to engage in the political, economic, or social life of the country. They were deprived of their rights to private property and free speech. They were often barred from access to equal justice, education, and health care. What’s more, the years of poverty and deprivation have weighed especially hard on the women of Afghanistan.

Afghan women have suffered greatly from the warfare and destruction in their country, and they deserve to benefit greatly from its overall recovery. In part, this will require programs geared specifically to the needs of women, children, and refugees; in part, it will come from countrywide programs that benefit the entire population. Through my position as senior coordinator for refugee and humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, as well as my oversight of the Office of International Women’s Issues, I have seen that Afghanistan’s problems are complex, deeply-seated, and as yet unsolved to a great degree. But at the same time, I am encouraged by the real progress I see being made toward assuring a new era of peace and stability for all Afghans, including Afghan women.

The United States has been far and away the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance, even before September 11. Since October 1, 2001, we have contributed $379 million to Afghanistan and have given almost 80% of all food aid for Afghanistan through the World Food Program. And these donations do not include our commitment of $297 million this year to the worldwide reconstruction effort undertaken by the international community at the Tokyo donor’s conference. Moreover, last fall, President Bush signed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001 -- an important piece of legislation to provide educational and health care assistance to the women and children of Afghanistan.

As a result, we are seeing movement toward a new Afghanistan. The country is experiencing a mass homecoming of Afghan refugees displaced by years of turmoil. In the last four months alone, more than 942,000 Afghans have returned to the country. In addition , the nation’s poor health conditions are being addressed by vaccination campaigns, and the maternal and child health services that have for so long been neglected have been designated for special funding.

We are beginning to see the reintegration of women into Afghan society as students, decisionmakers, recovery organizers, and political leaders. Possibly the most visible sign of change in Afghanistan has been the appointment of women to important political roles after having been denied any part in public life. With the encouragement of the U.S., two women -- Dr. Sima Samar and Suhaila Siddiq -- were appointed to prominent posts in the Afghan Interim Authority.

Another sign of the undeniable changes in the country has been the return of female students to Afghan schools, many for the first time. Indeed, the return of all students to school has been a vital factor in preparing Afghanistan for long-term recovery, an investment in human capital that will ultimately help insure a stable future. When Afghan schools reopened in March, the U.S. supplied them with teacher training kits and almost 10 million science, math, and reading textbooks in the Dari and Pashto languages. UNICEF estimates that 3 million Afghan children have returned to school and that many more girls are attending than was originally anticipated.

We have reached out to Afghan women through the establishment of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a public-private partnership that brings together the resources of government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. It reaches across borders to include representatives from both the U.S. and Afghanistan to formulate concrete ways to better the lives of Afghan women. I co-chair this council along with my Afghan counterpart, Dr. Sima Samar, and Foreign Minister Abdullah.

We have also recently witnessed an important step along Afghanistan’s road to recovery -- the meeting of the Emergency Loya Jirga that is concluding in Kabul where the transitional Afghan government was established by delegates from across the country. The Loya Jirga, or "grand council," is a process deeply rooted in Afghan tradition. It has been an important step because, though it may have been imperfect, it was a participatory process. While not yet rising to the level of full democracy, it has given Afghans a voice in their own government after years of Taliban dictatorship. It has been an Afghan-led effort with Afghans setting the rules and selecting their own leadership, not a government imposed by decree from outside forces. But it was only a first step, and we look forward to ultimately seeing a fully functional representative government in Kabul.

Significantly, the Loya Jirga included 160 women who served as delegates to this historic assembly. Last week, the Los Angeles Times told the story of one of these women, Lawangina Rahman, a 28-year old mother of three from southeastern Afghanistan. Though she faced intimidation and possible reprisals for becoming a delegate, she persisted because, in her words, "I decided to serve my village women and also serve my country. Our country has been in critical condition ... and now we must join with men, so that we can rebuild our country sooner." Another female delegate, Masouda Jalal, was nominated for President and came in second behind Hamid Karzai, who won by a large majority. Dr. Jalal, a physician, was aware of the long odds but nevertheless thought it important for Afghan women that a woman candidate be part of the ballot. The saga of the Loya Jirga can perhaps be viewed as a rough microcosm of the recent experience of Afghan women in general – tremendous progress, great promise for the future, yet a long way to go in bridging the gap that remains.

But we are moving to bridge that gap through programs like those planned by the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. At our first meeting in April, we formulated ways in which Afghan women can actively participate in the country’s recovery. One example is a plan to bring women from key Afghan government ministries to the U.S. for computer training. We are also looking to introduce other international visitor programs including English language training and university study programs, so that potential women leaders can broaden their skills while obtaining firsthand experience of the U.S.

We are also hoping to reintegrate women into their local economies so that they might become self-sufficient and eventually maximize their economic potential. In addition to programs which will help provide employment opportunities for women, vocational training will be supplied so women can learn the skills they need to support themselves and their families. In a nation filled with war widows, this will make a meaningful difference in the quality of life of Afghan women and children.

But while these commitments are significant, their implementation will take time, and their effects may not be evident for years to come. The destruction of Afghanistan has occurred over a more than 20-year period; we cannot expect its reconstruction to be accomplished in a matter of months. Our struggle to help Afghans find peace, stability, equality, and prosperity will be a long one. But as we face that struggle, I think that we would do well to remember this exhortation: "The pressing need spurs us on, the certainty of victory gives us daily inspiration." If these words ring a bell, it is because they are the words of Carrie Chapman Catt -- I believe that you are familiar with her. Though she spoke these words about the long fight for women’s suffrage, their lessons of persistence and determination offer inspiration to all those who labor against hardship and inequality. Thank you.

Released on June 17, 2002

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