U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Home Issues & Press Travel & Business Countries Youth & Education Careers About State Video
 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office of International Women's Issues > Remarks > 2001-2005 International Women's Issues Remarks

Women's Rights in Afghanistan and Beyond

April Palmerlee, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Will Femia, MSNBC Moderator
Remarks to MSNBC Subscribers
Washington, DC
September 5, 2002

MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Ms. Palmerlee.

April Palmerlee: Thank you.

Question: Iíve noticed that most of what weíre hearing about women out of Afghanistan is that theyíre going back to school. Is that the main beginning of getting the ball rolling for womenís rights?

Mr. Femia: Letís start with that one since itís about Afghanistan.

Ms. Palmerlee: The situation for women in Afghanistan has changed enormously over the past year. Under the Taliban, women were banned from working outside the home, access to medical treatment was severely restricted, there was a brutally enforced restrictive dress code, women were forbidden from leaving homes unless accompanied by male relatives, and girls were denied education.

So clearly the reopening of schools on March 23rd in Afghanistan was a major step forward. Being sure that boys and girls can be educated is one of the most important investments a country can make in its future and itís a priority for the United States in its U.S. foreign policy.

However, thatís not the only important change that has happened. Several women have been appointed or elected to important political roles. Over 200 women participated in the Loya Jirga (Grand Council). There is a woman minister of public health, a woman minister of womenís affairs and a woman heading the human rights commission.

Women are also now able to travel more freely. Theyíve returned to work, theyíre receiving better medical care, and as you pointed out, girls are back in school.

Question: What are the U.S. priorities with regard to womenís rights? Whatís the main thing youíre after? Health? Voting? Prostitution rings?

Mr. Femia: This one basically asks what the last one did, but Iíd like to spin it a little differently. When you look at a mess like post-Taliban Afghanistan, how do you know where to start?

Ms. Palmerlee: In Afghanistan, the women were in such a desperate state everything was needed. You do have to start with what you believe is the most urgent. In a case like Afghanistan, the humanitarian relief was the most urgent. You had to be sure people were getting food and shelter and basic health care services. All of that has to come before you can start thinking about things like school and jobs. You have to be sure people are safe and living under bearable conditions. So you have to prioritize like that in a situation like Afghanistan.

We do obviously engage with countries around the world and Afghanistan is an anomaly. There are several other countries where the situation is more stable and we can focus on other priorities such as increasing womenís economic opportunities and expanding their political participation. Those are two priorities that my office has focused on broadly, but again, thatís in countries where humanitarian relief isnít the number one priority.

Question: Women are not forced to wear the burka in Afghanistan anymore, but some still do. What are you supposed to do drag them into the 21st century?

Ms. Palmerlee: From what Iíve learned about the culture, women may choose to wear the burka. In Pakistan in refugee camps where the Taliban was not in power, sometimes 50% of the women wore burkas. Itís a cultural and religious expression and sometimes they also feel more secure wearing it - whether or not itís being forced on them. There are several countries where a head scarf or hijab, a longer covering, is considered appropriate modest dress for a woman.

But the women Iíve spoken to in Afghanistan tell me that the burka isnít the main thing. They will take their burkas off when theyíre ready. Some were ready 10 minutes after the Taliban was overthrown. For example one journalist who threw off her burka immediately and reported on the Taliban defeat. Others say that they prefer to wait until they look their best. There was an article in The New York Times this weekend showing women having their hair cut, their makeup done. Theyíd like to look their best when they take their burkas off, when they remove their veils.

In the meantime theyíre free to leave their houses, theyíre free to work, free to go to school. Many women, when I was in Kabul, would wear a burka in the street but when they got to their office building, remove it and work in western clothing. So itís a question of how the women are most comfortable. The important thing is that they now have the choice of when and where to wear it. Itís not a dress code enforced by the Taliban, itís a choice a woman is making on her own.

Question: Due to the Taliban, many Afghan women are separated from families and children; what international laws will allow women refugees to be united with their children?

Ms. Palmerlee: The refugee situation was very severe in Afghanistan with possibly as many as 5 million Afghans living in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. As is most post-conflict situations, women and children constitute the majority of the returning refugees. Over a million refugees have already returned to Afghanistan, so caring for them and supporting them and helping them reintegrate into society is a major focus of what we are doing.

But itís also interesting to note the leadership roles that women can develop when they are in these difference situations. In refugee camps women often take on a different role in tems of decision making and power sharing than they did in their home country. So they often come back home with a new perspective, new skills, new ways that they want to assert themselves and advance their lives and the interests of their family.

Mr. Femia: I had to edit these next two for length, but they represent a common skepticism that exists in the question list.

Question: Remember some other countries think our way of life is a bad one. My question is can we find a solution with out imposing our way of life or beliefs?

Question: I thought that interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign countries was one of the reasons "they hate us." As much as we detest how women are mistreated in other countries, itís fundamentally an internal matter of these cultures.

Ms. Palmerlee: The United States does not seek to impose its culture on other countries but President Bush has said that respect for women is a non-negotiable demand of human dignity. In other words, it does not depend on culture, or religion, or geography. Respect for women is something that the United States stands up for and demands and defends around the world. But we want to do that in context of a dialog. My office seeks to engage with other women and men in other countries to understand the boundaries and the opportunities in their societies at this point in time, and find ways that we can work together to help women advance their basic human rights. We do not seek to impose our culture on them but we will stand firm for these non-negotiable demands of human dignity like rule of law and respect for women, as I said.

Question: America honors the right of refugee status to those who attempt to escape torture or face death in their own countries. Are women and girls facing genital mutilation in Arab and African countries also given this right to stay in this country? If so, how many have been allowed in? Can they find temporary refuge in our overseas embassies?

Ms. Palmerlee: The United States views female genital mutilation (FGM) as a harmful traditional practice. FGM threatens the health and violates the human rights of women and it also hinders economic and social development. It can have serious health consequences. Women can suffer from lifelong pain and sometimes even death.

As far as the implications that has for refugee status in the United States, Iíd have to consult some of my colleagues to get specific statistics and laws about victims of FGM.

Question: Something I could never understand is how a Benazir Bhutto could end up in charge of a country like Pakistan. Isnít she the ultimate example (including the political corruption) that Muslim women are not as oppressed as is commonly portrayed?

Ms. Palmerlee: Every country has problems with its leaders at certain points and the corruption charges stemming from Benazir Bhutto's actions donít have anything to do with her gender. The important thing to remember is that there are women around the world who want to stand for office, who want to be able to vote, who want to be able to lobby for an issue they believe in. Those are the kinds of women who we are interested in supporting. We want to be sure that countries move towards broad-based representative governments and in order to do that, the entire population must be free to present its views in a democratic process. That includes the half of the population thatís women.

Question: Did you hear the story of the Nigerian women protestors who shut down the oil companyís operations? Why donít we see more of that around the world? Iím all for womenís rights, but it bothers me that they so seldom stand up for them on their own.

Ms. Palmerlee: Women are active many ways in countries all around the world. The fact that the women in Nigeria were noticed around the world may signal a new era in reportage, in global communications, in international recognition of womenís issues. Sometimes itís a question of listening carefully to whatís being said rather than waiting for a brilliantly colored photograph flashed across a newspaper to understand the challenges and obstacles that women face around the world.

Question: We canít pass the ERA here. Who are we to speak?

Question: Wouldnít U.S. credibility on womenís issues go a lot farther if we would just ratify CEDAW?

Mr. Femia: I had to look that one up, itís the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

Question: Why should the United States State Department prate about "fairness to women" when we still have so many holes in our culture to tend to?

Mr. Femia: I wanted to group all those because they all basically have to do with U.S. credibility on the issue of womenís rights.

Ms. Palmerlee: No one does more to secure the rights of women than the United States. We donít have the answer to everything for everybody but when womenís rights are secured they can take control of their lives and make choices that are beneficial for their families and themselves. But at the same time the United States is very involved in helping women who are faced with problems associated with conflict, disease, humanitarian disaster, etc.

Iíve already talked a lot about Afghanistan, but the United States is also the worldís leader in AIDS funding. We back a full range of programs from prevention to treatment to care and a search for the cure. Weíre funding numerous prevention programs like mother-to-child transmission prevention, and supporting increased access to health services and education and micro-finance to help women who are affected by the crisis.

The United States also remains very committed to playing a strong leadership role in supporting planning and reproductive health activities. We are addressing problems such as the large numbers of women who die in childbirth each year and as we talked about a moment ago, the continuation of FGM.

The Bush administration has also been aggressively combating the crime of trafficking in persons. This year alone we spent $27 million to fight what I would call a modern form of slavery. So the United States and President Bush are seriously committed to ensuring that respect for women and human rights for women are secured around the world.

Question: Has the U.S. made any official statement about that woman in Africa being sentenced to stoning for having a baby out of wedlock? Bush calls the Taliban barbaric, but I canít think of anything more barbarian than killing a new mother with rocks just for giving birth. While the U.S. is advocating regime change, it sounds like Nigeria would be a good candidate!

Ms. Palmerlee: I believe that case has been settled and the woman was released. However, there are many countries around the world where there is considerable room for improvement in womenís rights. President Bushís statement that respect for women is not dependent on geographic borders, that it is an international imperative underscores the U.S. commitment to working with other countries to ensure that womenísí rights are not only enshrined in legal code and constitutions but that theyíre also upheld by lawyers, judges, and juries, and that police officers and other individuals charged with personal safety in countries around the world understand and respect womenís rights and work to protect them.

Question: Do you agree that there is a difference between womenís rights and human rights since women have the exclusive burden of reproductive issues? And if so how do you define womenís rights with relation to reproduction?

Mr. Femia: Since that question is a little theoretical, letís bring it down to earth and ask how womenís issues that you deal with differ from general human rights issues.

Ms. Palmerlee: Certainly part of my portfolio of womenís issues is basic human rights. Thatís one of the United Stateís great concerns in U.S. foreign policy. There is a substantial section on womenís rights and the treatment of women in our annual human rights report. I work closely with the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to ensure that womenís rights are an integral part of the issues his office addresses.

Mr. Femia: That would be Lorne Craner, whoís chatting with us next week.

Ms. Palmerlee: However as the chatter pointed out, women do have special concerns and those are the issues that I hope to address. In many societies women have been denied not only basic freedoms but there are also places where women are unable to exert the freedoms that they should have. In other words, there are systemic and non-systemic problems to ensuring womenís rights around the world and weíre working to address both those kinds of issues. As I said, increasing womenís political participation and expanding their economic opportunities are key to the work that we are doing.

Women often have not had access to financial services, for example, so we are working to increase micro-loans to help women start businesses and become entrepreneurs. We are creating mentor programs to link women CEOís in America with women entrepreneurs around the world to give women in other countries a role model, a friend, a confidante who can help guide her through the challenges and obstacles in business.

In the political process, women have not always had the right to vote. In many countries that I visited in the Middle East, for example, women have only recently been able to run for office. So they need to learn how to campaign, how to create coalitions, how to speak to the media, and then hopefully once theyíre elected how to govern justly, how to make the best use of their elected office. Or, if theyíve been appointed, how to ensure that the work they do has resonance. So many of the issues may be somewhat similar to what you would call basic human rights issues but there are specific challenges that women have faced over the years that mean the problems have to be addressed in a different way, the solutions may be different.

Mr. Femia: Thank you very much for chatting with us today Ms. Palmerlee, I appreciate you taking the time out.

Ms. Palmerlee: Thank you!

Mr. Fema: More information on what the U.S. State Department is doing to further the cause of womenís rights can be found on their website.

Copyright 2002 MSNBC.com. All rights reserved.

Released on September 20, 2002

  Back to top

U.S. Department of State
USA.govU.S. Department of StateUpdates  |   Frequent Questions  |   Contact Us  |   Email this Page  |   Subject Index  |   Search
The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.
About state.gov  |   Privacy Notice  |   FOIA  |   Copyright Information  |   Other U.S. Government Information

Published by the U.S. Department of State Website at http://www.state.gov maintained by the Bureau of Public Affairs.