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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 Situation of Women in Afghanistan

April W. Palmerlee, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Remarks at Western Illinois University, Sponsored by the League of Women Voters
Macomb, Illinois
March 28, 2002

Good evening, everyone. I would like to thank the League of Women Voters of McDonough County -- especially co-presidents Susan Denecke and Rachel Smith -- as well as Janine Cavicchia, Director of WIU's Women's Center and the League's diversity chair, for inviting me to join you in commemorating women's history month. I realize a great deal of planning has gone into this event -- for which I am very grateful -- but I want you to know that this visit will cause just as much of a stir back home in Washington when I announce that I visited Mary Matalin's alma mater.

Women's history month celebrates the achievements of American women through the years. One of the most important roles for an American woman is, of course, to be a responsible citizen -- a person who takes an active interest in the well-being of her community, her society, her family, and her government. Someone like you, in other words. Someone who wants to be informed, who is concerned about others, less fortunate than herself, half a world away. Someone who will come out on a cold, March night just before Easter to listen to a government official talk about folks who most of you will never know, never meet. I want to thank each and everyone one of you for being here tonight and showing such an interest in the situation of women in Afghanistan.

This is an issue of great importance to the President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, and other key policymakers within the Bush Administration.

The Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues, which I head, serves as the main body for coordinating U.S. foreign policy on issues of concern to women. One of my principal roles as Senior Coordinator has been to consider and help implement practical steps to improve the status of women in Afghanistan across the board -- in the economic, political, social, and security areas.

Women in Afghanistan used to be active participants in society. Before the Taliban took over in 1996, in fact, 70% of the teachers in the capital city, Kabul, were women. Forty percent of the doctors were female. Women were engineers, architects, lawyers, and judges. During the long years of war, the economy of many families became dependent on women's income.

However, the Taliban changed everything. As one journalist put it, "Imagine waking up and discovering that overnight Congress had outlawed television, movies, video games, music, dancing, tape recorders and cassettes, children's toys including dolls and kites, card and board games, wedding parties, New Year celebrations, picnics, mixed sex gatherings of any kind, cameras, photographs and paintings of people and animals, cigarettes and alcohol, magazines and newspapers, and most books -- even pet parakeets."

But for women, the list gets even worse. The Taliban banned: any form of female education, from kindergarten through graduate school; wearing makeup, nail polish or jewelry; plucking your eyebrows or cutting your hair short; wearing colorful or stylish clothes, sheer stockings, white socks or shoes, or high heels; laughing, talking or walking loudly in public. In fact, one of the Taliban's dictates read, "Women, you should not step outside your residence." If women did venture outside, it had to be for an essential, government-sanctioned purpose. They needed to be escorted by a male relative. And they had no choice but to wear a garment that covered them completely -- from head to toe -- known as a burqa.

Listing the things that the Taliban did allow would probably be quicker. But thanks to the United States-led international coalition, the Taliban have now been driven from power and al Qaida terrorists are on the run. As President Bush has said, "We have a great opportunity during this time of war against terrorism to lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace . . . We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, [including] respect for women."

The United States is committed to ensuring the human rights of women. As the Secretary of State said on International Women's Day, "The worldwide advancement of women's issues is not only in keeping with deeply held values of the American people; it is strongly in our national interest as well."

Peace, prosperity, and stable governance cannot exist in the long term in societies where women are denied basic human rights, like:

  • The right to private property and protection of free speech;
  • The ability to undertake political, economic and social pursuits
  • Freedom of movement -- can you imagine not being able to leave your own home?; and
  • Access to equal justice, education and health care.

Which brings me to the current situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. As an old Afghan saying goes, "Society is like a bird. If one wing is broken, then society cannot function."

Since the Taliban's defeat, the lives of all Afghans -- especially women -- have improved. Women are now able to travel more freely in the cities, they are beginning to return to work, and schools for girls and boys reopened on March 23. Women are now receiving health care denied to them for several years.

The governing agreement signed by Afghan representatives last December in Bonn, Germany underscored the centrality of democratic principles and human rights. That includes protecting the rights of women. It also provided for the Afghan Interim Authority to govern until the establishment of a Transitional Administration by a traditional Grand Council, also known as a Loya Jirga, in June.

With the strong encouragement of the United States, two women were appointed to the Afghan Interim Authority:

  • Sima Samar, Vice Chair and Minister of Women's Affairs, and
  • Suhailia Siddiq, Minister of Public Health

In addition, three women have been appointed to the 21 member Commission organizing the Emergency Loya Jirga. The commission members are now traveling across Afghanistan to identify the 1500 people who will be attending the Loya Jirga this summer. Hundreds of seats have been reserved for women, refugees, and academics.

When President Karzai and several members of his cabinet visited the United States in January, Under Secretary Dobriansky and I met with not only the Minister for Women's Issues, but also several other ministers, including:

  • The Minister of Education
  • The Minister of Higher Education
  • The Minister for Reconstruction and
  • The Minister for Labor and Social Affairs

We stressed even though the Women's Ministry has an essential role to play, women's needs cut across all sectors of society and must also be addressed by all of the ministers.

So what is the United States doing to help Afghan women and the country as a whole recover and rebuild? Well, we are doing a great deal now, but did you also know that we have been helping the people of Afghanistan for a very long time. The United States has been one of the longest committed and most generous contributors of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Since 1979, the United States has contributed more than one billion dollars.

And we will continue to assist these proud and resourceful people.

In 2001, before September 11, we had contributed $183 million in humanitarian assistance. Through January 2002, we contributed $400 million.

At the Tokyo Conference for reconstruction assistance in January, international donors pledged $4.5 billion -- of which $1.8 billion will be contributed this year alone.

The United States itself pledged the largest amount for a single year, $296.75 million.

How is that money going to help Afghan women? One way is through the Afghan Women's Ministry.

Through direct bilateral assistance and contributions to the United Nations Development Program, we have assisted in refurbishing the Ministry, including removing rubble from the auditorium, renovating offices with office equipment, and supporting technical advisers who are establishing operations and developing programs for the Ministry. Our funding has also helped ensure that the minister was provided with an official vehicle, office furniture and supplies, computers and a satellite phone.

And in a meeting in February with U.S. Charge d'Affairs Ryan Crocker, Minister Samar noted her pleasure that the Women's Ministry was the first department in this Afghan administration to receive a grant from the U.S. Government.

During Chairman Karzai's January visit, he and President Bush also announced the creation of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council to promote private/public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions and mobilize resources to assist Afghan women in the sectors of

  • Health
  • Economic and political participation
  • Access to credit, and
  • Education.

Education -- this is also an important way we are helping women and girls in Afghanistan. As the First Lady has said, "When you give children books and an education, you give them the ability to imagine a future of opportunity, equality and justice. Education is the single-most important long-term investment we can make in the future."

Last weekend, schools for boys and girls reopened for the first time in six years. To help with these efforts:

  • We are supplying almost 10 million textbooks for science, math and reading to grades 1-12. These books are written in the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto. Five million of these textbooks were delivered for the March 23 opening of schools.
  • We are funding teams of teacher-trainers and helping educators develop curricula.
  • We are working with a global consortium of companies, led by a non-governmental organization, to provide sewing machines and cloth for Afghan women to make school uniforms for girls.
  • We are supplying 4,000 teacher-training kits.
  • We are sending thousands of chests of school supplies.
  • And through the American Fund for Afghan Children, we are supplying toys, clothes, and books for Afghan children. This fund, to which President Bush urged American children to contribute one dollar, has so far raised over $4.6 million.

In addition, we have funded the refurbishment of the women's dormitory at the University of Kabul. That will allow women to remain on campus overnight, in a safe environment.

Healthcare is also a major concern to Afghan women. Physicians for Human Rights conducted a survey recently that brought many appalling statistics to light. I'll just mention two of them.

One out of six women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan tried to commit suicide. And under the Taliban, health care for women deteriorated to such an extent that the country now has an infant mortality rate of 149 per 1000 births. Only Angola has a higher rate of 195 per 1000 live births. Afghanistan now needs to ensure the health of all of its population in order to be able to rebuild the country. It cannot neglect the healthcare of more than half its people.

The United States is spending more than $10 million to improve healthcare in Afghanistan. Funds are being used to provide preliminary health care, including maternal and childcare, train community health workers, and vaccinate children.

In a project slated for May 2002, the American Red Cross, World Health Organization and UNICEF will work together to support a comprehensive campaign to vaccinate 9 million Afghan girls and boys against measles.

The U.S. has also contributed $8.3 million since October 2000 to address the water and sanitation needs of the Afghan people.

Famine was also a serious threat that we needed to address. The United States has led a world effort to provide record amounts of food to the Afghan people. Since October 2001, the World Food Program has delivered 370,000 metric tons of food into Afghanistan, of which 305,000 tons have been distributed throughout the country, assisting some 6.6 million Afghans. In December alone, the World Food Program delivered 116,000 metric tons of food -- more than ever before in one month, anywhere in the world.

We are also assisting Afghan women in re-entering their local economies and gaining some measure of economic self-sufficiency. The Department of Labor is contributing $1.5 million to provide women with vocational training, counseling about career possibilities, and job creation.

We are sending wheat to bakeries run by widows who earn a living and feed their own families; these bakeries help feed a quarter of Kabul's population, and more will be built. With U.S. assistance, the World Food Program has been able to re-open bakeries in Mazar-e-Sharif that had been closed for several years.

And, importantly, we have not forgotten those Afghan women who were forced to flee their country to refugee camps in Pakistan and elsewhere. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that in the first three weeks in March alone, 80,000 Afghans have been assisted in returning home from Pakistan.

In the past five months, we have spent $92.7 million to support refugees' education and teacher training, healthcare -- including maternal health, nutrition, water and sanitation -- mine awareness, civic programs, and drought relief. In addition, $52 million is focused on facilitating the repatriation and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons.

No doubt, the greatest concern remains security. The situation in Afghanistan is still unstable, due in part to the fluid political and military situation. Particularly in more remote areas, there are military operations, landmines and banditry.

To address these challenges, we are assisting the Afghans by:

  • Hunting down remaining Taliban and Al Qaida fighters
  • Deploying the International Security Assistance Force to Kabul (when ISAF'S mandate comes up for renewal we will support extending it until the end of this year)
  • Assisting in organizing and training an Afghan army
  • Assisting in organizing and contributing to the training and equipping of the Afghan police, and
  • Using Special Forces and civil affairs teams to help local commanders deal with contentious issues and discourage conflict among them.

So, much has been done, but much remains to be done. Rebuilding Afghanistan is an enormous challenge, one that will take all of the ingenuity, resources, and dedication the international community can muster. But if we work together, as Mrs. Bush has said, "We can show the world that the forces of terror can't stop the momentum of freedom."

Thank you very much.



Released on April 2, 2002

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