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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office of International Women's Issues > Remarks > 2001-2005 International Women's Issues Remarks

The U.S. Commitment to Women: Working Together for Conflict Resolution and Peace-building

Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator, Office of International Womens Issues
Remarks to Florida International University
Miami, Florida
March 12, 2004

Thank you very much for this opportunity to be here. I want to thank Dr. Karen Garner for inviting me. I want to thank Dean Griffith for that very wonderful introduction, and Patricia Telles-Irvin for your very gracious hospitality. I think this is a wonderful conference and a perfect time for addressing these issues.

This week, as you know, we celebrated International Women’s Day. And for us at the State Department, it really became International Women’s Week. It’s an important moment in American history. It’s a time of challenge and opportunity. One that often reminds me of the words of Abigail Adams, something that she wrote once to her son, to try to encourage him, to bolster his spirits before he went overseas with his father. She wrote, “This is a time in which geniuses would wish to be born.”

It is a time of great struggle. We grieve for the lives lost yesterday, March 11, in Madrid. And on a personal level, Anita has already referred to it, we did lose some very good friends in Iraq. And I mourn the loss of a good friend, Fern Holland, who was making an immeasurable contribution to improving the lives of women in Iraq, and who was killed in that accident this week, in an ambush in Karbala. I remember something that another Iraqi friend wrote to us recently after a similar attack. Her name is Nasreen Sadiq Berwari, she is Minister of Municipalities and Public Works in Iraq, and a fearless leader. And she wrote to us after one such incident. She said, “Our enemy is trying to stop the progress toward democracy. But our determination is stronger than their cowardly acts. The train of positive change in Iraq has started its journey,” Nasreen said, “and it will continue until it reaches its destination, where a better future for Iraqis is achieved.”

I think we can take pride in the great work that has been done by individuals like Fern Holland, by very brave men and women in our U.S. Military, by our civilian workers, who are in Iraq and Afghanistan both, and in the great achievements that we can also point to –the triumph in the midst of the tragedy. It’s incredible, really, to believe that in the last 2 and ½ years, 50 million people, and that includes 25 million women and children, have been liberated from the brutal tyranny of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. It’s an important thing to remember as we celebrate International Women’s Day.

I would like to talk a little bit—and I think that Anita [Sharma] did just a superb job in laying out so much of the background of what went on in Afghanistan and Iraq, progress that has been made, challenges that remain—and I’d like to start out my remarks referring to Afghanistan, because it is the country that I visited most recently. I got back two weeks ago today from a two-week visit to Afghanistan. I was there to participate as a member of the delegation led by Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky of prominent women leaders from the United States, members of the US-Afghan Women’s Council. This was the fourth Council meeting since its inception in January 2002, when it was inaugurated by President Bush and President Karzai. This was only the second meeting, however, we had in Kabul.

My boss, again, is Under Secretary for Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky, and she co-chairs the US-Afghan Women’s Council, with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah, and also with the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Habiba Surabi. And the Council is really dedicated to the belief that partnerships work wonders. And I think if I were to have one message that I were would like to give you tonight, and one in which I would like to offer the opportunity to you to work in partnership with us, those of us in government, those of us who are trying everyday to expand our network among the private sector, and with organizations and efforts such as the one that Anita leads back home, it would be this message: partnership works wonders, and to invite you to join us in that kind of effort.

In the case of the US-Afghan Women’s Council, it really does work specifically to sponsor programs, concrete programs that might have a measurable impact on the ground. Programs, for example, that might help Afghan women to get jobs, to have access to health care, to have a voice in the political and social arena, to be counted, to vote, to be able to walk to the market and perhaps open their own markets, to be able to go to school. This is just one program dedicated to these goals. There are many others, both within the United States Department of State and USAID, again, I mention the efforts of the U.S. Military. And there are countless private citizens and NGOs that are doing incredible things to benefit women in Afghanistan and we salute them.

I can state, as a member of Paula Dobriansky’s team working on the issue of women in Afghanistan, and as someone who was recently there, I can state absolutely that things are better in Afghanistan now than they were a year ago, certainly two years ago, not to mention a decade ago.

I’d like to focus, just touch briefly, on four sectors of activity, and signs of progress, and remaining challenges: education, political participation, access to health care and jobs.

On the educational front, more and more women are starting to work, to take literacy and other courses, and to get involved in the rebuilding of their country. Girls and women are back at school at all levels. At the primary level, 37% of students are girls. Teachers now want a new teacher training institute for Afghanistan. And this was a big topic of discussion during our recent visit. There are plans underway to reopen the American school in Kabul, so it could provide an alternate venue for Afghan children to obtain an education. We want to work on a scholarship program in that regard. We want to build an American University in Kabul. And First Lady Laura Bush announced to UNESCO in September that teacher training is a priority of hers, and she and her staff are very much looking at an appropriate way, in the quickest amount of time that we can build a new teacher training institute in addition to the one that is already functioning. As the Minister of Education told us when we were in Kabul, he said, “Afghanistan could use an army of trainers in all subjects.” There’s a momentum that cannot be stopped.

And in all our programs, I think someone mentioned it earlier, it’s the human face. I think Anita mentioned it. It’s the face of the women that we work with that really guides us in our work. I think especially – I feel like I was just there yesterday – I visited a literacy center in Kabul and got to observe a basic math class. And women from ages 18 to 80 were in the room. And the deputy director, an Afghan, came up to me and he said “You know, it’s incredible to believe, but two months ago these women did not even know how to hold a pencil in their hands, and now they’re writing their homework assignments in a notebook.”

Yes, there’s a tremendous amount to be done, but it’s amazing what is already happening and is visible. And how much can be achieved in really a relatively short amount of time. Again, on the subject of literacy, the Afghan people we met with really understood and kept underscoring how the lack of education is inextricably tied to terrorism and fundamentalism. Conversely, they recognize that an education will be a fundamental weapon in the War on Terror. They also recognize that education is key to finding jobs, so that families, especially those headed by widows and women who are single heads of households can support themselves. Afghan leaders also see education as key to attract foreign investment. As one official said, “We have to struggle jointly against this misery of illiteracy.”

On the political front, women are registering to vote. I think what I heard is 28% of women are registered to vote, but there are hundreds, and in some cases, depending on the Province, thousands by the week now. Again, it’s a momentum, it’s growing. We hope it will grow faster. It’s very important to us. But women in Afghanistan I can tell you they are very excited about the opportunities ahead. While I was there, at this one literacy center, the directors had decided to use the center as a rallying point for their students. I think there were about a thousand women who had gone through the center, and they gathered about 500 or 600 at the center, because the United Nations was unable to move its registration post closer—they wanted another registration site set up, and for whatever reason, bureaucratic reason, the United Nations would not do it. So the directors of the center were very wise. They said, “OK, we’ll rally the women here, and we’ll walk the two miles to the registration place.” And that they did. It was my second week there; it was Tuesday, the 24th, I still remember the day. And again, there about 500-600 women, some in burkas, some not. The important thing was, they walked those two miles to register.

I remember something that Karen Hughes, who was on our delegation—you might remember her name, she has been an adviser to President Bush for a long time and is very active in our US-Afghan Women’s Council. I should also mention that Mrs. Rumsfeld was another member of our group. Everybody was just the same, visiting as many places as we could, talking to as many women as we could. And Karen Hughes said something to the Council as we gathered with Minister Sarabi and Minister Abdullah, and the rest of the two delegations, U.S. and Afghan. She said, “You know it’s incredible. Last year,” she said, “while I was here, the women were just talking about writing a constitution. This year, you’ve enacted one.”

Foreign Minister Abdullah put it this way, he said, “Considering where things were two years ago, the extent to which the women of Afghanistan have stood up is remarkable.” He added that, “Afghanistan can be a model for the rest of the world, showing what can happen to a nation when rights are denied, and what can be achieved, when rights are guaranteed.”

President Karzai, whom we met when we were there, and our US Ambassador, Zalmey Kalilzad, described the new constitution as “the most enlightened constitution in the Islamic world.” The Afghan people we met with were justly proud of this historic accomplishment. We met with several women who had participated in the constitutional loya jirga. They expressed deep appreciation for U.S. attention and support.

When I give these talks, as I do often, particularly this kind of week with International Women’s Day, I always want to relay, to as many people as I can, this message of gratitude. We can’t all travel to Baghdad. We can’t all travel to Kabul. But I tell you, I have. And on both trips—my Iraq trip was in October; this trip was at the very end of February—I can tell you, the women particularly, Iraqi women, Afghan women, will come up and say, “Thank you, Thank you, we are so grateful to the United States of America.” So on their behalf, I have to relay that message while I’m here tonight. Because you’re important. You’re important to them. You’re helping them whether you know it or not, as U.S. citizens, as taxpayers, as mothers, relatives of the brave people who are over there helping to rebuild these societies.

And they realize that there is so much more to do. They say, “Look we know we need someone to back us up. It’s important to us to know we’re not alone.” The women that we met with were actively trying to build coalitions. And they are so proud that they stuck together at the loya jirga, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, or their tribes, or their families. They said, “We stuck together, and for the first time we have a grassroots women’s organization.” Implementation of the constitution and legal reform are the next big steps. As one participant said, “The battle has just begun.”

We were please to be able to announce while we were over there that one of the programs that will be funded by the US-Afghan Women’s Council and the State Department, is a program that the International Association of Women Judges is launching to train five Afghan women judges this spring.

Security is an issue, but we did notice this time, particularly again on the Council delegation who were there a year ago, that this year surprisingly enough, the word security was not mentioned, well I have to say it was mentioned hardly at all! Paula Dobriansky remarked on this. She said, “Even six months ago,” (our last Council meeting was in Washington, we alternate), she said, “That was the key concern.” If you asked Afghan women, what is your top concern? They said “security.” It’s still very much on their minds, don’t get me wrong, and it has to remain a key priority for the United States Government. But I will say, again it’s the human face. I had this amazing encounter at the Afghan center in Kabul, the one I told you about that did the voter registration, I sat in on a literacy class one day. And I sat, literally on the floor, in a circle with these women. And I said, “Tell, me, what is your key concern? What is the main thing that you have to tell me?” This was the week before the rest of the delegation came over. And these women, again, ages 16 to 60, or 18 to 80, they turned to me and they said “Jobs.” And this one woman turn to me and said, “I can weave carpets.” She said, “I weave these carpets, and I don’t get very much for my labor. But I think I could do better.” I said, “This is a very good concern you’ve identified. It’s the type of thing we want to hear.” Because we want very much in addition to political participation capacity building efforts to focus on the economic issues, on the jobs issues. Another woman said, “I can knit sweaters. Look, I knitted this one. I sell them to the Norwegians.” I thought “An entrepreneur!” Right here, in this literacy center. And this other woman chimed in, and she said an incredible thing that I will carry with me always, she said, “Each one of us in this room knows how to do something.”

So perhaps, Dean Griffith, it’s another myth, another paradox, in my view it’s the “myth of women as helpless victims.” Yes, you see the tremendous amount they’ve suffered. Unimaginable things. Two faces come to my mind. One woman I met at a dinner that Mrs. Karzai had. This woman participated in the loya jirga, who was trained as a lawyer just before the Taliban came in. When the Taliban came in she had to spend the next several years basically in hiding, in her house. I said, “Where did you learn English?” She said, “I taught myself, during the Taliban years.” I said, “But you couldn’t have tapes during the Taliban years.” She said, “My daughters and I taught each other reading out of books.” So she taught herself English. She told me her story in English. I said, “Where were you during the Taliban years?” She said, “I was in Mazar.” I said, “What was it like?” She said, “I’ll never forget, walking down the street.” In, of course, the burka. You know she kind of laughed about that. She said, “You know the burka can cut two ways, you can hide a lot of things under the burka, and when you go to talk to the men they’re trying to figure out who’s under the burka and they can’t see you.” But, she said, the most horrible thing was walking down the streets of Mazar, and there would be the town square, and hanging from the trees there would be severed hands. But again, not the helpless victim—she’s back, looking at the legal reform issues, she’s an upcoming leader, and very happy with the direction that her life, and the life of her country has taken, and very capable--just like those other women in the literacy class.

We were also interested, I talked to Mike earlier [Col. Michael J. Dooley] about the work that is being done by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the countryside that I think, that we think, are going to make a great contribution to the security situation. You know, often you hear these things, and you say to yourself, “What’s a ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’?” “What does it mean? You know I work at the State Department and I didn’t even know what a Provincial Reconstruction Team is. What’s a “PRT”? But we got to go out and see one. What it is, is a team, that’s out there, because you know a lot of people say, “Yeah, yeah, things might be better in Kabul, but what about in the Provinces?” It’s a worthy observation. There are about four PRTs that are already up and running, I think twelve will be, twelve soon, if not now. We saw the one in Bagram. A PRT is a mixture of military and civilian advisers. They were doing a lot, not only in terms of rebuilding of infrastructure, but rebuilding trust in the community. Working with community leaders, to identify needs, to figure out where they could work, in partnership. I was so impressed with a video that some of the female U.S. military officers showed us. Their day jobs back here, they’re police women. One was from New York, one from Chicago, one from somewhere out in California. Now, they’re in Bagram, training Afghan women police. Talk about your nontraditional occupations! So there they are, they were showing this video of women in their long skirts and veils, learning how to handcuff people. So women are stepping up to the plate increasingly in so many spheres.

Micro-enterprise, micro-credit programs are creating economic opportunities. We met with some representatives from FINCA, it’s an organization, an NGO, that specializes in micro-enterprise and micro-credit initiatives. Thanks to a US-Afghan Women’s Council grant from Daimler-Chrysler, again, the partnership, the corporate partners are very important, FINCA has so far assisted I think its about 55 clients women, with small loans. The average size of the loan is approximately $200. When we were out there we announced an additional, Daimler-Chrysler announced, an additional $25,000 this year for additional micro-lending and micro-enterprise facilities. We met with two women who have benefited from this program. They are from Herat, and area you know, that has had tremendous problems. One was a FINCA credit officer in Herat, and very proud of her job, and the other was a woman client. And this woman was starting, thanks to $100, $200 from FINCA, was starting her own business. She said, “During the Taliban, we were secretly giving literacy and tailoring lessons to women. Now,” she said, “I teach about 600 women.” She’s about 32 years of age. She makes and sells beautiful dresses and other handicrafts, and she’s paying back her loan.

Access to health care—health care is a tremendous concern. But again, there has been some progress, though there’s still so much more to do. We visited a maternity hospital called Mullah Lai, where approximately 80 to 100 births occur each day. This is a very unique facility in the country, even in Kabul, where only 4% of births involve a trained birth attendant—only 4%. And in some Provinces, the maternity mortality rate is the highest in the world. The Minister of Health, Mrs. Siddique, is doing incredible work in Afghanistan. She told us that the financial and moral support of the United States has been “life-giving” and “immeasurable.” But so much more is needed.

One U.S.-funded program that is especially promising is called the “REACH Program”. REACH stands for Rural Expansion of Afghanistan’s Community Health. Again, trying to bring progress out of the capital and into the Provinces. The REACH Program focuses on midwife training and aims to increase the number of skilled birth attendants in the rural areas. The first REACH students, a class of 25, will be graduating in April. We had the chance to meet with two of those students while we were there. As the Deputy Minister of Health explained during this meeting, he said, “Women were not allowed to be trained under the Taliban. But now we’ve had two years of peace, and women like this are unstoppable.”

I’ll touch just briefly on Iraq because I think Anita has done a superb job summing up so many of the significant signs, again progress and challenges, and also because we both this week, each in our different venues, had a chance to travel and work very closely with the delegation of Iraqi women who, thanks to U.S., and our coalition partners, the Brits, were able to come over to the United States to attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women Session up in New York. It was a fascinating group. Some of them a little more seasoned now, like Dr. Raja, who is on the Governing Council, and I was also very impressed with some of the new faces, for me. Shifa, the professor from Mosul. Dr. Shifa Hari-Hussein, I think was her name. I got to know her yesterday, we had some great training sessions at the Heritage Foundation, my alma mater in the policy world, that were really focused on media, training, how to present a message, how to deliver your message effectively, how to be an effective politicians, some down to earth political skills. We talked about small business networking, and building the skills of entrepreneurs. So we need more of these nuts and bolts capacity-building things that Anita talked about.

But let me return to Dr. Shifa Hussein. Again, for me this week, she’s one of the human faces that guides and inspires me. Again, she’s an English professor from Mosul. And she was sitting there during the whole session just taking notes. She turned to me at one point and said, “I could have this go on for a thousand years and I would never get tired.” And she was just amazing, and I turned to her and said something about, “Is this your first time traveling?” And she said, “This is my first time.” I said, “Your first trip out of Iraq?” And she said, “My first trip out of Mosul.” Amazing! A professor in her 30s!

I would just like to list some of the initiative we have launched, Anita touched on them briefly. On Monday, International Women’s Day, at the State Department we honored a woman from Iraq. I mentioned her, our friend, Minister Nasreen Siddique Berwari, who gave a very stirring address. And the bottom line message of her address was things were going well in Iraq, and they will get better. We know that the road will be long and hard, she said, “but I guarantee you that it will not be as long and hard as the 35 years that we traveled before we were liberated.” And her message was also Iraq, the people of Iraq, “We build, we make, we deliver, we produce, and We includes women!”

Secretary Powell, responding to her remarks, applauded her, and to support the progress in Iraq, particularly on behalf of the women of Iraq, announced two initiatives, both of which my Office will be very busy handling. First, he announced a new $10 million Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative. And the second initiative is a US-Iraq Women’s Network. The Democracy Initiative, as Anita mentioned, will train Iraqi women in the skills and practices of democratic public life. Programs under this Initiative will include Education for Democracy, Leadership Skills, Practical Workshops, Entrepreneurial Training.

The second initiative, one that I’m especially proud of because my Office helped develop the idea, is the US-Iraqi Women’s Network. And that, I can assure you, is already up and running. The purpose of this is similar, it’s going to be a different entity, but similar mission to the US-Afghan Women’s Council. It’s a recognition that government alone can’t do everything. That in order to succeed in this fabulous endeavor we’re going to have to mobilize the private sector. We need people like you. We need your ideas. We need your efforts. We want to work with you. When Karen Garner approached me, I said, “Come right on in. What are your ideas, what can I do for you? Sure, I’ll go to Miami.” That’s part of this network, It’s already up and running.

When Nasreen, again, she’s Minister of Public Works in Iraq, we left the Treaty Room in the State Department, went down to an office downstairs, and I hooked her up with some representatives who were there from the Society of Women Engineers in the United States and the American Society of Civil Engineers. And they had a fascinating discussion about how, on a practical level, this organization, these organizations, might be able to help her, not just as an Iraqi women leader, but as perhaps the top woman engineer in Iraq.

We also immediately hooked up with the Heritage Foundation, we’re reaching out to various organizations. We know that capacity-building skills will be key in these coming months, whether it’s in Afghanistan, in terms of helping with the implementation of the constitution, with legal reform, with elections.

Iraq, again, another great reason to celebrate this week: the signing of the Transitional Administrative Law. But again, the work has just begun. Now we do have the elections in January 2005, and the group of Iraqi women, as we can attest, that we met with this week, said “we’ve got to move now.”

So we know we have a tremendous amount of work ahead. Again, I think, as United States citizens, or as residents of this country, we should be proud of the great, the very great work that is being done. I’m reminded of something President Bush said in his last State of the Union Address, when he said “Our aim is a democratic peace. A peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling.” The President added, “This great Republic will lead the cause of freedom.”

I am proud that my Office of International Women’s Issues at the State Department is in the forefront of this campaign. I’m proud to work with people like Anita Sharma. I’m proud to be here today, and I invite all of you to take an active interest in our efforts. Thank you so much for having me here tonight.

I have a present for Dr. Karen Garner [holds up burka], from Afghanistan. It is after all a piece of cloth. It’s been a symbol of oppression. It’s now a symbol of triumph and it should be an emblem of our continued resolve.



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