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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

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush's Trip to Afghanistan

Charlotte M. Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Special Briefing
Washington, DC
April 19, 2005

MODERATOR: Charlotte Ponticelli is the Senior Coordinator in the International Women's Issues Office. Prior to that, she served as Deputy in that office and before coming to the State Department she worked for the Heritage Foundation. She also served in other government positions and received numerous superior honor awards at the State Department and her bio has been provided for you (and is available on www.state.gov/g/wi).

Our format today is that she's going to provide remarks and then following her remarks, we'll have a Q&A session.

MS. PONTICELLI: We love all of you and it's really just a great pleasure for me to meet with you this afternoon. I really do feel like I'm surrounded by so many friends, and colleagues and, more importantly, by those of us who have worked in the trenches together. We have put so much of our effort and our time and our commitment to the cause of the women of Afghanistan. And that, of course, is what I'm going to talk about today because I just had the incredible thrill of being in Afghanistan for two weeks. I'm just back, I guess, a little over a week. It's hard to believe. I feel like I've left a big part of my heart there, as I always feel when I come back from Afghanistan.

I went over to advance the delegation of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council that was led by Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky. The Under Secretary led our delegation over there and, of course, I was there when Mrs. Bush came and had a series of incredible events there in Afghanistan. It was great to be there while the First Lady was there and to see the look on her face as her longtime dream of coming to Afghanistan was fulfilled. Mrs. Bush has been very engaged from the very first part of our effort on behalf of the women of Afghanistan. In fact, we like to recall that Laura Bush was the first First Lady to deliver a radio address for the President and the topic of her radio address, right then, soon after 9/11, was about and on behalf of the women of Afghanistan.

So I had a great, intense, packed two weeks and I want to talk a little bit about some of my impressions, some of our impressions from our discussions and our site visits in Afghanistan, what we've come back with, some of the challenges still ahead and how we need to really nurture the partnerships -- so many of the partnerships we've been able to form in this room. I can look around this table and think -- I look at Carol Yost of The Asia Foundation -- of the tremendous partnerships on behalf of women journalists. I know all the great work that Vital Voices has done. It's just -- it's marvelous, really. And our friend, Haleh Esfandiari, I know about the tremendous events you've organized at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, mobilizing incredible forces of experts and activists on behalf of these (women’s) issues.

I'd like to just briefly describe the three parts of our visit and just speak very briefly, because I really want to hear your questions and have more of a conversation. The first part -- I guess you could say the first big part -- showcase of our trip was the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council meeting itself. Most of you have known for a long time about the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. This is the only public-private partnership in the United States devoted solely to the women of Afghanistan, to helping the women of Afghanistan and helping them as they step up to the plate in the political and economic reconstruction of their country.

The U.S.-Afghan Women's Council was launched by U.S. President George Bush and Afghan President Karzai soon after 9/11, in January of 2002. It is co-chaired by my boss, Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky, along with the Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs, who continues to be Minister Abdullah, and the new Minister of Women's Affairs Minister Massouda Jalal, the first woman in Afghanistan's 5,000-year history to actually run for president of her country. She is doing fabulous work in her position. I think she would do a fabulous job in any position that she would get, really. So those are the three co-chairs of our council.

Initially, a couple of years ago, we started out with, I guess you could say just a couple of main issues. Of course, education was the first one, and education and literacy remain top on the priority list. Political participation was also a huge issue and will remain a huge issue, and then also economic empowerment of women, entrepreneurial skills, and economic opportunities for women. Those were the first -- I guess you could say those were the first couple of big priorities. Now, and I think thanks in large part to so many of the tremendous Afghan people who are leading the charge over there, health and particularly women's health issues have surfaced. It's hard to say which is priority over the other.

The new Minister of Health in Afghanistan, Minister Amin Fatimi, reminded us when we were over there, for example, that without taking care of the health of the women of Afghanistan, the women will not be able to enjoy any of the other human rights or opportunities that we are struggling so hard to help them with. So health increasingly is a priority.

We had a four-hour meeting, with an hour devoted to each of those topics, and we had, in addition to our delegation and the members of our Council, not just the Under Secretary, but businesswomen like Connie Duckworth, Diana Rowan of Afghan Women Leaders Connect and the Rockefeller Philanthropy, Carolyn Firestone, a prominent woman in business and who has also done a lot of work in Afghanistan with global partnerships, but also Tim McBride, who was with Daimler Chrysler and is now with Freddie Mac. We had Cheryl Benard of the Rand Corporation. Ms. Benard is doing some great research on progressive laws within Islam, and a model that she is now developing to help Afghan women who are seeking to revise the family codes. Afghan women are now also attempting to insure implementation of the new constitution.

Also on our delegation was: Barbara Barrett; Anne Heiligenstein, who is with the Texas State Department of Health and Human Services and formerly of Mrs. Bush's office and was one of the motivating forces behind Mrs. Bush's efforts on the Women's Teacher Training Institute; and Claude Allen, who is the President's Special Assistant for Domestic Policy. This was his first trip to Afghanistan. Claude Allen is now heading up the (Council’s) new Health Committee. It's the only subcommittee that we have. Other members of the delegation were: Reverend Kathleen Card, Jim Kunder, USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia and the Middle East; and, of course, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who serves in Afghanistan.

Afghan participants included, of course, Foreign Minister Abdullah and Minister Massouda Jalal for the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Also participating was the Minister of Justice, Mr. Sarwar Danish, and the Minister of Public Health, Dr. Sayed Amin Fatimie; Dr. Sharif Fayez, the (President pro tempore) Dean of the American University in Kabul; and Soraya Paikan, Deputy Minister of Higher Education. Many of you got to meet Deputy Minister Paikan when she was here with the Afghan delegation during our International Women's Day celebrations in early March. It was more than a day for us, certainly, this year. Deputy Minister Paikan in addition to serving as Deputy Minister of Higher Education and has also led the charge for Afghan women lawyers.

The mayor of Kabul participated and our friend Habiba Sarabi, former Minister of Women's Affairs, who is now the first governor in Afghan history. She is the Governor of Bamiyan Province. We also had a member of the Independent Election Commission speak before our Council. We had Woranga Safi. Many of you met Ms. Safi when she was here recently. Ms. Safi is Deputy Director of Secondary Education in the Ministry of Education. We had my counterpart in Afghanistan, Zohra Rasekh, who is Director of Human Rights and Women's Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mahboba Wahezi, Director of the Afghan Women's Business Council. The Deputy Minister of Administration at the Ministry of Commerce, Zaiuddin Zai, also participated. It was -- as you could see -- an impressive lineup of people speaking over the four hours.

I have to say that in terms of priorities, I've already talked a little bit about them, but I thought it was very interesting, of course, to physically be back in Afghanistan. It's been a year since my last visit. This was the sixth meeting of the U.S-Afghan Women's Council, the third one in Kabul. So it's been a year since the last time (in Kabul). Our last official formal meeting, however, was last summer here in Washington. The physical changes in Kabul are impressive. A year ago, I remember looking at vegetable stands and thinking, "Isn't this great that they're starting to develop some of the agricultural -- bringing back some of the rich agricultural products of Afghanistan?" You could see people selling their wares.

This year, you would go down the streets of Kabul and you would see billboards with the advertisements for cell phones and international communications signs for businesses! Quite a bit more sophisticated -- certainly in terms of how far Afghanistan has come in this relatively short period of time. There were fewer burkas on the streets. I know people always ask about the burkas. They were less evident. I think you saw more on the rainy, muddy days than you did on the clear and sunny days. This gave me pause, well, maybe there is a utilitarian purpose because when it rains and the mud is up past your ankle (the burka protects your clothes). But I have to tell you, (there were) fewer burkas.

And one thing that Under Secretary Dobriansky pointed out, as we were flying in, you notice many more green spaces, which was almost a shock to the eye, because I remember flying into Afghanistan or over some of those long stretches when one would see mostly brown.

But I think in terms of the women in Afghanistan, I have to tell you my overall impression -- and again, I was lucky, I got to go out a week ahead of time so I got to meet with women. I got to see some of our U.S. Government-funded projects and schools. I have to tell you that the women in Afghanistan, in general, are moving ahead by leaps and bounds. Two years ago, I remember the delegation visited a widow's bakery and, of course, that was a monumental achievement for these women running this bakery. Last year, we talked about a rug project, and now Connie Duckworth's Arzu rug project is doing phenomenal business. Handicrafts are now for sale.

This year, in addition to those more traditional occupations, we sat at a table like this one and it was packed with women from eight different women's business associations. And these women represented everything from livestock to dairy products, with one woman running her own construction company. She has built a dam in Afghanistan! Another woman is the most successful kite-maker and pipe-seller in Kabul. Some of you have read the bestseller (about her). It's called "The Kite Runner." She is doing very well making kites.

Again, just to review the range of businesses women are engaged in. Women are very interested in agriculture, legal agriculture. Secretary Rice is very involved in looking at the (illegal) poppy cultivation situation and at the creation of alternative livelihoods as just one part of the strategy to cut down on that poppy cultivation. I find it very encouraging that increasingly the women in Afghanistan are saying, "We're very interested in agricultural skills. We want to be involved in bringing back Afghanistan's agriculture sector as a means of alternative livelihoods."

Minister Jalal at our meeting commented at our meeting: "The first priority for us now is jobs, jobs." Then the Minister of Health spoke and he said, "The first priority is health." So I would have to say if there were two issues that kind of rose to the forefront of our discussions, it was those two.

We also spoke about legal reform and actual implementation of the constitution. The women of Afghanistan, as you can imagine -- I know all of us here in this room watched with great interest last October when the women of Afghanistan showed the world -- defied the naysayers and showed up in incredible numbers to vote. Forty-one percent of registered voters were women.

The first voter for Afghanistan was a 19-year-old woman. They are very, very proud of their contributions to the Loya Jirgas (national assembly), especially to the constitutional Loya Jirga. They're very, very proud of Afghan women's participation in the election. But they're very realistic and they're very smart and they're very focused on the challenges ahead; that is, actual legal reform and implementation of the constitution.

We met again with the women judges. Some of you met with the Afghan women judges when they had come to Washington for training and for consultations. We met with a whole packed table, again like this, of judges and women lawyers, who are no longer content with just being judges and lawyers, they want to be part of the supreme court.

And they said, in some cases, we're more qualified than those men on that court, so the most qualified should get it and if we're more qualified, we should (be appointed). So it's not just a question of fairness of getting women on that Supreme Court, but they're feeling of merit and qualification. They don't want a quota just for a quota, they want the most qualified to be appointed.

So in terms of political progress, it's not just showing up to vote, it's leading the way. It's not just writing the constitution, it's implementing it. In terms of education, it's not just building schools and it's not just getting girls in record numbers, which they are, in the primary schools. We know that 5 million students are back in school and I think 40 percent of them are girls -- highest number in Afghan history.

But now Afghans are really focused on getting a quality curriculum and getting more girls into secondary education. I know when you speak with Soraya Paikan, our friend who is the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, she bemoans the fact that so few girls go onto the high school and then, of course, onto the universities. But it was really interesting to visit the schools. The students are not just learning to read and write and to do their math; they say, "we could use some science labs, we want to learn about computers." When you would ask them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It was funny, there was one classroom and I think there were three little girls in the front -- of course, the Health Minister was over the moon with happiness -- they said, "Doctors. We want to be doctors."

So think how far that conversation has come. It's come from women having to work in secret as midwives in a country where still, the maternal mortality rate is the worst in the world, and in some provinces the worst in recorded human history, where still every 30 minutes you have a woman who dies because she is unattended by skilled birth attendants. Only 4 percent of women have a skilled birth attendant when they give birth.

So you still have a very, very tremendous challenge there. But again, if you look at the challenges ahead, I think it is heartening to see how much can be accomplished in just over three years. Women are being trained as midwives, and little girls want to be doctors when they grow up. It's a whole new conversation in Afghanistan than the one we heard two years ago, even a year ago.

Again, economic opportunity. It's not just starting their own businesses, it's diversifying the kinds of businesses that they're doing and making sure that their efforts are sustainable -- sustainability of their businesses. How do we compete with goods that might be -- might come in from abroad? How can we teach more of our members how to write a basic business plan and how to succeed in business?

It was so interesting to see one particularly interesting U.S.-funded project that combined vocational skills and literacy training. Twenty men and twenty women, and they would flip the schedule, so that the women would have literacy classes in the morning in one room of this very basic building, and then in the afternoon they were learning carpentry skills. The men would do the carpentry lessons in the morning and the literacy in the afternoon. Some of them are husband and wife teams, and plan to start their own carpentry shop in their own neighborhood.

So that visual image, if you could just try to picture this, this visual image of this workshop. It looked almost like a stable of Bethlehem. I mean, a very basic lean-to, almost. And in one room, literally, with the benches and the board for the literacy and a courtyard with another room where they had the sawhorses out and the women were there making doorframes and shelves. And you could see the doorframes that they were finishing and you thought they're literally -- women are literally getting their hands into the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

To summarize the parts, there was The U.S.-Afghan Women's Council meeting, the actual site visits, talking with judges, with the business leaders, with Governor Sarabi about the challenges she's facing as governor.

I want to tell you about another U.S.-funded project, a computer project, where young people -- mostly young women – are learning how to program computers, not only how to program (software), but how to fix them and repair computers. I couldn't even begin to try that.

I asked one young woman, "Did you ever dream you'd be working on computers like this, to this degree?" And she said, "Six months ago, I didn't know what a computer was." And I mean, she was not exaggerating. I gave her my e-mail address, so now she sends me a note every other day or so about how she's doing in her computer classes.

When I got back, I read in the paper about our new Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick’s visit to Afghanistan. I thought it was just a great quote, maybe it's because I had just come back from this incredible trip, and he said, "You can read and you can study, but there's nothing like the faces and the circumstances to motivate you." And I think that's certainly what I brought back from this trip.

The third part of the March trip -- if you look at meetings, site visits -- the third part, of course, the centerpiece, was the First Lady's visit to the new Women's Teacher Training Institute. It's actually been built on the campus of Kabul University, right next to the women's dorm there. It's amazing; some of us walking up to this incredibly beautiful facility, saying, can you believe it? Two years ago, we were sitting around the table saying, "Okay, we want to build a women's teacher training institute," and two years later, here it is. And it's built for these young women, who have so many hopes and dreams for the future. And when you talk to the young people and you ask them, "What was your life like then? What is your life like now?" I'd have to say the key dividing line is when they tell you, "At least now, I can hope. I can dream. I can aspire to a better future. And there's so much I want to do."

So having Mrs. Bush there: she very much enjoyed meeting with the teachers that were being trained, because it is a training-the-trainers type of approach with the ultimate goal for this to be a literacy initiative that will have a ripple effect from the center out to all the provinces as more and more teachers are trained and are able to train others.

She also had a chance to tour the women's dormitory at Kabul University and she just loved it -- maybe because she is the mother of two young women, she can really relate to the university and the young women at the university. She asked them about their experiences and what they were studying and what their hopes were for the future.

There were two memoranda of understanding that were signed while she was there. The U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings accompanied the First Lady and participated with the Afghan Minister of Higher Education in signing the memoranda of understanding (two MOUs): one for the American University of Kabul, which I think, as I recall, the plans are up for that to be up and running and to start some courses, I think, by late fall; and then also, the International School of Kabul, with the goal that that could be an alternative educational setting for young people in Kabul.

The First Lady also participated in a tree planting with the members of the Women's Conservation Corps. And to me, every time you see the members of the Women's Conservation Corps, you think -- and I'm smiling because I remember how fascinated Secretary Rice was in one of her first briefings with us to hear about the Women's Conservation Corps -- because this is such a beautiful way to help women. This program is especially important to the many widows who need to have a job, to have a skill, to have an important mission, to work at the reforesting station, and be part of the re-greening, if you will, the replanting in Afghanistan. This project also addresses the tremendous challenge of developing alternative livelihoods and helping the Afghan people develop a different agricultural crop in Afghanistan. You see the jobs, women, environment -- all that nexus, all the way that those things link up by watching the tree plantings and the activities of the Women's Conservation Corps.

We then flew by helicopter to Bagram Air Force Base, where Mrs. Bush greeted the troops. And she got a rousing welcome, of course. I have to say that there's one message that I feel every time I come back that I have to relay to my fellow Americans, my fellow Afghan Americans, everybody here, and that is the word -- the message of gratitude -- so much that you get, and particularly from the women, who say, "We know what the sacrifice has been of American mothers and fathers. We know what you have given us."

Also, the men of Afghanistan. Minister Fatimi was effusive in his thanks for the American people. He said, and this is almost an exact quote, he said at our Council meeting, "We realize you have given us, thanks to you, thanks to the United States of America, you have given us a precious gift that must be protected and nurtured." And it's so humbling to sit there, to see their bravery, their courage, and their hard work. And if they're not daunted, then how can we be? If they see the possibilities in the future, then how can we not? And if they refuse to be made victims and refuse to be discouraged, then I think that no less we have to continue with our courage and commitment on behalf of a wonderful country.

And I think I always tell folks, whether you're Democrat, Republican, left, right or center, be very proud of the United States of America. When you go over there, you see the seeds that we have helped plant and how grateful the people of Afghanistan are for those seeds. You can't help but come back with a renewed sense of pride and mission for the important work that we're all doing.

In closing, I want to announce that thanks, in large part, to many of you who have commented to us over the past couple of months, we'd like to have more regular briefings. Under Secretary Dobriansky is very interested. So we will reconvene regularly our NGO briefings with the next one coming perhaps around the first part of June. So we will let you know. Thank you.

Released on May 12, 2005

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