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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

Women in War and Reconstruction: The U.S. Commitment to Women in Afghanistan and Iraq

Charlotte M. Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Womens Issues
Remarks at World Affairs Council
Ventura, California
October 28, 2004

Thank you Jay for that very kind introduction. I am delighted to be here.

I am here today to share with you the voices of the many women from around the world who have been so courageous in their efforts to build a better future, and who are so grateful for our help. I want to tell you about women named Raja, and Narmeen, and Habibah - and other brave and talented women that I have had the privilege to work with, not just here in the United States but also on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. Once you know these women, and the work we are doing together, you too will surely be proud to be on their side.

I am also honored to be included in a series of important speakers. I know you hosted Condi Rice last month at this forum. Seems lots of people from Washington have been to California lately, including my boss Paula Dobriansky, the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs. Paula spoke to a Fortune 500 Conference of America’s Most Powerful Women about our work, and about how they could get involved. Laura Bush also spoke also at the same event about the incredible progress that Afghan and Iraqi women are making today with our support, despite all the challenges they continue to confront. I can’t match Condi Rice’s or the First Lady’s star power, but I can speak with you today about my deep commitment to this cause that we share. So I thank our gracious hosts and organizers for this opportunity not only to speak to you, but also to listen to your ideas and suggestions, and to invite your partnership in this vital endeavor.

Promising Trends
I have been asked to highlight the progress we are making, and the challenges we continue to face, in two particularly important arenas: Afghanistan and Iraq. This is especially timely today, as we gear up for our own election - because the election held in Afghanistan earlier this month, and the election to be held in Iraq early next year, are two major milestones on the road to freedom.

The Afghanistan presidential election on October 9 -- the first democratic election in that country’s long history - is inspiring and truly extraordinary. Today, as the final ballots are tallied, it appears almost certain that Hamid Karzai, a steadfast champion of Muslim moderation and a true friend of the United States, will win with an absolute majority of the vote. That is plenty significant, but there is a broader lesson here as well --- 8 million Afghans voted including 40% -- or 3.2 million - WOMEN. I must add that some of us were cheering on the side for the one woman candidate. Masooda Jalal ran a great campaign.

As President Bush said:

The election in Afghanistan … was a landmark event in the history of liberty. That election was a tremendous defeat for the terrorists…. On the day of that historic election, an Afghan widow brought all four of her daughters to vote alongside her. She said this: "When you see women here lined up to vote, this is something profound. I never dreamed this day would come." But that woman’s dream finally arrived, as it will one day across the greater Middle East."

That day is drawing closer in Iraq too, since we liberated that country from another awful tyranny last year. Iraq is already preparing for their first true election in decades as early as January. We stay ready to support the determination of all Iraqis, including Iraqi women, to participate fully, not only as voters, but also as candidates for national office.

What has made this progress possible? The first, absolutely necessary condition, of course, is the firm U.S. military commitment to liberating Afghanistan from Taliban tyranny and continuing the fight against the terrorists. And our troops are doing a magnificent job.

The second essential ingredient is concrete U.S. support for Afghanistan’s physical, economic and political reconstruction. But the good news is not just about government spending - and it goes way beyond even the 200 projects we have implemented directly in support of Afghan women. Another vital component of our support for Afghan women is partnership: the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. This is a public-private network designed specifically to mobilize additional resources, expertise, and other support to fill critical needs that might be missed by other, purely official programs.

A few examples: Several U.S. companies, both large and small, have donated computer equipment and training for Afghan women. Other American firms have organized collections to support microcredits for aspiring Afghan women entrepreneurs. One of the members of our Council, the head of PBS, is offering them mentoring programs in TV journalism and production, and broadcasting their documentaries - which I can tell you are incredibly moving. A leading U.S. businesswoman is spearheading a rug export project for Afghan women; the project is called Arzu, which means "hope" in the Dari language of Afghanistan. Another member of our Council, active in a major foundation, has contributed toward exchange programs for Afghan women lawyers and judges, so that they can continue to play their part in creating a free society. Right here in southern California, a dynamic Afghan-American woman named Fary Moini has worked with her Rotary Club to set up a school for hundreds of needy kids in the Afghan city of Jalalabad - and even to make that ancient city a sister city of San Diego!

And it’s not just women who are helping. There are other real heroes like Dr. Peter Grossman, Director of the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital right in this area, volunteered to treat a severely injured young Afghan girl named Zubaidah. Not only that - he even put her up in his home for over a year, until she successfully recovered and rejoined her family in Afghanistan. Dr. Grossman is now volunteering as a member of our U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council’s Health Advisory Committee. The list goes on, and we are always open to new partners. If you are interested, please just click on International Women’s Issues at www.state.gov and you will find your way.

Turning now to Iraq, I can assure you that our partnerships are also critical. Courageous Iraqis are making a tremendous effort to rebuild their lives and their country, despite all the obstacles, and to overcome the ravages of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Let me give you a couple of personal illustrations.

There is Dr. Raja Khuzzai, a woman obstetrician and hospital director from Diwaniyah in South Central Iraq, founder of women’s self-help community organizations and now a leading member of the Interim National Council. As such, she was among the small group of Iraqi officials who negotiated the cease-fire with Moqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Najaf over the summer. When we congratulated her on this courageous mission, she stated simply that, despite the danger, she would do it all over again any time Iraqi democracy needed her help.

Just two weeks ago, I hosted Iraqi Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Narmeen Othman in Washington. Not so long ago, Narmeen and her husband both served time in Saddam’s dungeons for appearing to question his authority. Narmeen started out as a teacher, and told us about the time she had the audacity to teach her students about personal responsibility. For this "crime," Narmeen was detained and interrogated by the secret police. Now she says quietly but firmly that "The terrorists will not succeed this time. We are determined to win."

These individual examples are mirrored in the thousands of other Iraqi women whose rightful roles in their society we are helping to restore. Indeed, Iraqi women were once among the best educated and most professionally accomplished in the region. That is why it was shocking to hear from UN experts that, by the end of Saddam’s rule, more than two-thirds of all Iraqi women were actually illiterate, and each year at least 400 of them were murdered in so-called "honor killings" he had legalized. Many thousands more were slaughtered by Saddam’s own militias, and left to rot in mass graves. As one Iraqi woman who survived this reign of terror told us, "You can stop searching for weapons of mass destruction; you have already found them. They were the regime."

Today in Iraq, despite the obvious security problems, there is indeed a momentum for democracy that cannot be stopped. We are seeing qualified women proudly taking their places in the country’s new Cabinet - where six out of 33 Ministers are women, with portfolios including such non-traditional jobs for women as Minister of Agriculture, or of Migration and Displaced Persons Affairs. We watched in awe when Iraqi women organized successfully to defeat an attempt to impose more restrictive and discriminatory family laws upon them - while preserving an honored place for Islam in Iraq’s emerging new legal and constitutional framework. And my own office is helping Iraq’s women learn how to be more effective participants in the legal, political and economic life of their country.

I am pleased to report that the State Department is providing $10 million in grants for Iraqi women’s democracy projects, looking toward the national election in January. The United States is committed to ensuring that women in Iraq are full and active participants in building - and leading -- this new democracy. Our initiative will provide training in political leadership and organization, media and communications skills, public advocacy, and entrepreneurship. We are supporting the creation of centers for networking, resource materials, and Internet access. We are supporting those working for educational and legal reform. We are fortunate to have as partners seven U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, who bring extensive experience to their efforts in Iraq.

Another initiative, just as important, is our new U.S.-Iraq Women’s Network, which is linking American and Iraqi women and their supporters to share their resources, their dedication, and their expertise. The basic concept is simple but powerful: Iraqi women and women’s organizations tell us what they still need, and American women and women’s organizations tell us how they might be prepared to help, and we put the two together -- in person, on email, through an NGO connection, or all three. For anyone who might like to help or just to find out more, the first step can be as easy as sending my office an email. I hope some of you may consider joining this vital effort.

Are We Imposing Foreign Values?
I hope I have given you some sense of how we are making progress on women’s issues, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before I conclude, I must take just a moment to debunk a troublesome misconception on this subject. One of the most popular myths about U.S. policy is that we are trying to impose reform on the region, or worse, insist on our model without taking into account local traditions and cultures. If this were our approach, we would be doomed to failure. The simple truth is that we cannot impose reform on the Middle East, even if we wanted to do so. No initiative can succeed unless the very people we are trying to help support it. Reform must come from within, and the best ideas will come from the region. We can only support and encourage them.

But by the same token, we must never fall into the terrible trap of imagining that aspirations for freedom, equality and the rule of law are somehow exclusive to Western culture, and foreign to the peoples of the Middle East or other Muslim-majority societies. On the contrary; the U.S. believes, as President Bush has stated on numerous occasions, that these aspirations are the common to all humanity. In Afghanistan, he pointed out, we do not see "unwilling people having democracy forced on them. No one forced them to register by the millions, or stand in long lines at polling places" on the day of their first ever free election less than three weeks ago.

So I believe we must continue all of our efforts to assist the women - and the men - of these emerging democracies through practical, concrete initiatives of the sort that I have sketched for you today. And we must continue to find common ground with our regional and international partners for enlightened reforms, including progress on women‘s issues.

I would like to conclude by reiterating two simple, central points. One: Until we have addressed the lack of empowerment for women -- legally, politically and economically, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other countries - those countries will never achieve their full potential. Two: Experience has shown that full empowerment of women can only come about with the active involvement and efforts of courageous individuals and groups on the ground. The US government is committed to helping, but we also need your support. So I thank you for your attention today -- and more important, I look forward to your comments and questions, and to keeping in touch in the future.

Released on November 22, 2004

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