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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office of International Women's Issues > Electronic Resources > U.S. Support for Afghan Women, Children, and Refugees > 2003

Round Table on Afghan Women's Issues

Washington, DC
July 17, 2003

MR. DENIG: Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Welcome also to journalists in our New York Foreign Press Center.

We're delighted to have everyone here today for a session with the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. The council members have been in Washington this week for two days of very important and high-level meetings, and we're delighted to have the opportunity to be able to have a discussion with them.

Accompanying the members of the delegation from Afghanistan is Charlotte Ponticelli who is the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues in the Department of State. Next to her are Afghan Minister for Women's Affairs Dr. Habiba Sarabi and other members of the Afghan delegation.

We'll start out this morning with a brief statement by Charlotte Ponticelli, then one by Minister Sarabi, and then we'll move on to question and answers.

Charlotte.

MS. PONTICELLI: Thank you very much, Paul. Thank you. Good morning. We really appreciate all of you joining us here today. As Paul mentioned, we've just had a meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. This is just the third meeting of the council since its creation by President Bush and President Karzai in January 2002.

Joining me today is the Afghan Minister for Women's Affairs Dr. Habiba Sarabi and other council delegates whom I would like to introduce just briefly to you now. To Minister Sarabi's left, we have Seema Ghani who's a preeminent businesswoman from Afghanistan. She also does incredible work running an orphanage to assist Afghan street children and has, herself, adopted 16 children in Afghanistan.

To her left is my friend Afifa Azim. Afifa is Coordinator and Founder of the Afghan Women's Network. It's a network of almost 30 Afghan women-led NGOs in Afghanistan. And then down the line is my colleague Zohra Rasekh. Zohra is actually my counterpart in Afghanistan. She's been appointed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to head up an office for women's issues and human rights issues in Afghanistan.

And then I'm very pleased and honored to introduce the two newest members in our endeavor. We have Jamila Emami sitting off to the side here. Jamila and Gul Makai Rangbar, these are two young Afghan women journalists who recently participated in the making of an incredible documentary called "Afghanistan Unveiled."

So those are the members of our group today. I am honored to be here as the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the Department of State. I report directly to Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, who serves as co-chair of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council along with Minister Sarabi and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Abdullah.

I will turn the floor over to the others for some additional words and for your questions, but first would like to make some brief remarks.

As President Bush has stated on several occasions, "We are committed to Afghanistan for the long term. And our commitment will not be diminished by developments elsewhere in the world." The U.S.-Afghan Women's Council is an important sign of that commitment and we believe that it will continue to play a very special role in the broader U.S.-Afghan relationship.

The council is unique. It not only embodies a bi-national approach, but it also serves as a bridge between the public and private sectors and it's very much a people to people approach which aims to work on concrete initiatives that can bring real people together and perhaps fill critical niches that might be missed by larger but sometimes more impersonal programs.

The council was actually created in response to an outpouring of support from ordinary Americans for Afghan women and children who saw the hardship and the suffering that occurred during the Taliban regime. And as the world witnessed the fall of that regime and the courage and determination of the people of Afghanistan, and particularly the women of Afghanistan, you had hundreds of Americans calling the White House, the State Department and Congress to volunteer to help Afghans rebuild their society.

So it's in this spirit that President Bush and President Karzai created the council, and it's in that spirit that we are here with you today. You have the list of the delegation and the council members. We have spent the last two days in some very productive discussions, and in addition to the council meeting itself, we've met with the Secretary of State, the First Lady, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and the Administrator of the Agency for International Development Andrew Natsios.

Also, on Capitol Hill yesterday morning, they met with Congresswoman Judy Bigger, who has been a strong and a staunch supporter of our efforts to help Afghanistan. She and several other members of Congress hosted a very useful discussion.

At the council meeting itself, we discussed three major areas of endeavor: education and literacy; business, job skills, and micro-finance; and also political participation and some key issues regarding the draft constitution and the upcoming elections in Afghanistan.

Education in particular keeps coming out as a salient issue, and we all agree it's the key to success in all the other areas I've mentioned. That is why we are proud to say that with U.S. assistance, four million children, nearly half of them girls, have returned to school this year in Afghanistan. Girls as old as 12 and 13 are entering school for the first time. They are very eager to secure the education that they need.

Adult education is also extremely important. The Ministry of Women's Affairs, under the leadership of Minister Sarabi, has been working hard to get underway plans to set up a network of women's resource centers in each of Afghanistan's 32 provinces.

The United States has assumed responsibility for constructing almost 20 of these centers. Japan will build another center, and we understand that UNIFEM will also help with some expenses. These centers will be a key place for training, education and literacy, job skills training, health care education, and much, much more.

Again, we also discussed economic prosperity for Afghanistan and we'll discuss that further during the Q & A, as well as political participation. All of this that we do with and for the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council is a part of a larger U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. In the past 18 months, the U.S. has provided over $1 billion in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. And there is much more in the pipeline.

You can read about all of these efforts in the report that we've just issued. It's our second annual report to Congress. I think we've brought some copies here today. The reports detail the tremendous amount we are doing and will continue to do in terms of U.S. support for Afghan women, children and refugees.

Together we're making good progress. Yet we all know about the many challenges that remain. What is the answer? It is simply this: We have to keep working in partnership, recognizing that government alone cannot do it all and that we need to increasingly engage the private sector; and that our efforts will very much be attuned to having Afghans, themselves, in the lead, and to devise and implement together effective strategies. We simply must help Afghan women gain the skills, the access and, above all, the dignity that they deserve.

And I'm very pleased now to give the floor to my esteemed colleague, a woman of great courage, clear vision, and a driving force to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan, Minister Habiba Sarabi.

MINISTER SARABI: Thank you, Charlotte.

Good morning. I want to just make a little short information about the council. The council, as Charlotte said, is created on 2001 when Mr. Karzai came to United States and is co-chaired by Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky from the United States' side and also Minister for Foreign Affairs from Afghanistan Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and me. And it's a bridge between the Afghan woman and American women. And this council is trying to -- always tried to -- how change the life of Afghan women, how to support the life of the Afghan women.

And this council offers the key issue which is very important for Afghan people and Afghan women, which is a education program and education problem because we have the largest number of illiterate people in Afghanistan. So that's why it's one of the topic in this -- which is discussing on this council. And also the political participation, it must be very important, and it is important for the Afghan women.

We have to promote the life of Afghan women. We have to encourage them to take part in their political participation. And also, economic empowerment is another issue that this council always discussing about this in pushing women to become self-sufficient because it's a base for the society and also for family.

If a woman have the economic power, she can do and she can this -- she will have the authority in the family, and we have a large number of people who are just running the families who are important, very important to empower the women on the economical side. Also, this council is a kind of giant committee between the government and the civil society.

We have the members from the civil society and this is a boon for this council to bring a joint committee between the civil society and between the people and government. So we hope that this concept and the meeting of this council can be supportive for the Afghan women.

Thank you.

MS. PONTICELLI: Thank you. Do you want to turn to -- or should we open for --

MR. DENIG: Why don't we open for questions?

MS. PONTICELLI: That would be good, and then we can turn to other members, too, depending on your questions.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask a question maybe specifically directed to Ms. Azim about if you can describe some specific activities or developments in the women's participation in the drafting of the constitution. How is that being implemented?

MS. AZIM: Woman in Afghanistan, through the woman induce mobilize to have voice in the process of constitution. With the support of or with the close cooperation with the constitution commission we have trained woman. They got the training of different women's issues and those trainers now; they are in the different provinces.

They are educating woman how to mobilize, how to realize the advices and how to have collective wise and how to participate in this process actively. This is going on to the end of the July, and we have planned in three steps our book. The fourth step is because the constitution is draft, but it is not published. But the constitution commission is collecting new ideas from the people. We wanted woman to be part of this -- to have active participation in this process.

And then later on, they will publish the constitution in the month of September, and then they will get again feedback from the community and women, on woman issues in Afghanistan, they are involve most of the women. They are involved in this process and they are working in the villages and all through all the provinces. We have access, I mean security; they can go and they can move. They are working and they are raising awareness on vote process and also importance of constitution.

And the second step will be when draft will be published. Again, we will have another work to raise awareness because as mentioned by our Minister, now, most of the community are illiterate and woman illiterate. We need again to work with them to raise awareness what is published in the constitution, again, before they will submit it to the Loya Jirga, I mean Constitutional Loya Jirga.

And after that, also we have plan again. When the Loya Jirga will decide if we will have the constitution signed by Mr. Karzai, then there is another step again to work on it. I mean to work, the planning is to work in the policies, I mean now, which is going on, and later on also to work with the community to change wrong practices in the community because people don't know what is in the constitution, what is women desires? Women don't know how. They can't define desires.

And other things which we would like to do includes we have a special group of woman to work with the government also to have another program or also groups to oversee the other laws. Later on, then, they will change the laws. We wanted to see how women would be affected by the Afghan constitution because it is also very important to see how they like several rights. It is very important.

We have some wrong practices in the community and also something not very good for the women and the other lot. And therefore, we have a long planning to work and we need support also in this regard because it is needs long time program.

QUESTION: May I just follow up with two questions? First, since these is such a new experience for women, especially out in provincial areas, how would you describe the reaction of women to be approached and to be drawn into this process? And my second question would simply be, how can people outside of Afghanistan help in this process?

MS. AZIM: Regarding the first question, as I mentioned, we have given training to the women as a trainer and they will work in the community according to the level of the community. For example, for the illiterate people as it is very new, also for everyone, and for illiterate people the most difficult to convince them, but how we are working with them? Like, there is a family. In a family there is a rule, but it is assigned by anyone. But if a child has to follow the rule -- what time they should come to the home, what they should do, what is their responsibility, what is the responsibility of the parents that are making the rule? Like this, we are making simple and we are working with the women to participate and think -- what is their role? How is their role important in this process?

And then, as we saw, they are showing interest and they are participating. Sorry, for the next question, will you please repeat it?

QUESTION: You were addressing the need for support outside of Afghanistan in this process. Could you define that support?

MS. AZIM: We need technical support, also, from outside and also to we also to see how women movement took place in other countries in the world, how they had pressure there on their laws and how they get their rights in their community. This is one. And the other, also we need the financial support for this process to get from outside, too, to get this all activated or to implement the planning which we have --

MS. PONTICELLI: In the packages have -- oh, excuse me, Minister Sarabi.

MINISTER SARABI: Yes, please.

MS. PONTICELLI: No, I just wanted to briefly mention a couple of things that we are doing in response to concerns that have been identified by the Ministry of Women's Affairs and through our council meetings even just this week.

Assistant Secretary Pat Harrison, who is a key partner of ours heading the Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau, gave a great explanation and recap of some of the educational endeavors that we're involved in, particularly exchange programs. There was a group of women from Afghanistan who came over during our last elections to observe that process.

There are also country-to-country educational efforts through Partnerships for Learning, which is a relatively new program run by Pat Harrison and her Bureau. Again, cultural and student exchanges, we think, are going to continue to be a helpful resource. And also the council works very closely with the NGO community, with NGOs who are involved on the ground in some of these educational efforts, and again, the women's resource centers, which I know you want to mention.

MINISTER SARABI: Yes. I wanted to add something regarding the giving awareness on the constitution: The government decided to have a campaign and it's started. This campaign has been started and every day there is an article on the TV to give awareness according to the constitution. This is one point that the government decided to do and this campaign is just continued, and on the other side, too, the women's center and provinces.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs also takes part in the campaign and we have another plan to build a mobile video team and this mobile video team can go even to the district and the village and to give awareness on the constitution, on the literacy program, even for the health education which is very important, and all together can be with this video mobile team.

MR. DENIG: All right, let's take it from someone up front. Wait for the microphone, please, and then -- just wait for the microphone. Thank you.

QUESTION: Bill Royce, Voice of America. A follow-up first toMs. Ponticelli then the Afghan ladies. If I'm not mistaken, in Time-Life, you know, you mentioned that your organization, really, in both countries is a combination of private and public. And if I'm not mistaken, Time-Life has agreed to organize and to fund this network of women's centers, which is right at, I think, 24, if I'm not mistaken?

MS. PONTICELLI: Well, I should recap where we are, Bill.

QUESTION: Okay. Where are we?

MS. PONTICELLI: Yes, okay.

QUESTION: Because that's going to help the education --

MS. PONTICELLI: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MINISTER SARABI: It will be built up to the 22.

QUESTION: 22?

MS. PONTICELLI: Yes. We have either already in the works or on the table right now --

MINISTER SARABI: If we get announce for 22 and it will be a full team plus fee with international altogether 17. And they decided to build 17, but now it was announced for 22.

MS. PONTICELLI: Yes, our meetings with USAID yesterday were very helpful, I think. But to clarify your point, because you make a very good point, and that is the public-private partnership has also focused heavily on the value and the need of the women's resource centers. And in that spirit, AOL Time Warner has spent the past year raising funds for this purpose, and during the course of this week and our events here, announced their intention to donate almost $60,000 to build a women's resource center. So that is a wonderful example of the public-private partnership responding to a need that's been addressed by our friends in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Okay, and the second part of my question goes back to the elections. Not the elections, first, the Constitutional Loya Jirga. Very often in these days in international political events, there are outside observers from foreign governments, think tanks, et cetera. Will there be foreign observers at the Loya Jirga for the constitution and will there be, particularly, observers who are sensitive to women's issues?

MINISTER SARABI: With the particular question on the particular observer for women issue, actually, I don't know very well. But yes, there are foreign observers and Government of Italy is responsible for the judicial system and for the constitution and German and other international communities yesterday have decided. And UNAMA are the observers for this constitution. I'm sure that someone will take care about the woman's rights issue, too.

MR. DENIG: Next question. Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, hello. I'm sorry I was late. My name is Reha Atasagan. I'm with the Turkish Public Television.

I just want to know if you could give us a sense of is there any resistance within the society and also among women in Afghanistan to this, you know, new progress or what you're trying to do? Because they have gone through a very difficult time and can they adjust themselves? Is there any resistance? Thank you.

MINISTER SARABI: Not at all. No Afghan women just showing the resistance against the movement or to anything the women's center [is doing] in provinces. They are very happy. They want more. They want to create women's center and to expand the women's center. Even the village -- always people come to me and say that we are very far from the women's center which is, for example, in the center of the city, but we want this kind of community development and the villages, too.

And generally, with the movement for the woman's rights, woman's rights, of course, [meet with] some resistance from the extremists and conservative people. Sometimes we receive some threats; some [who] threaten from the outside are conservative people. That's all.

QUESTION: Well, may I do a follow-up then? Then can we say Afghan woman is already liberated? I mean, they don't listen to what their husbands try to impose them?

MINISTER SARABI: No, no. It's difficult. The situation is difficult. Situation from one society to another society is -- it's a big difference between woman here in the Western and women in Afghanistan, and the Ministry of Woman Affairs don't want to impose something to the women. We have to train them. We have to educate them. They have to know about their rights, about their personality, about their position. When they understood who they are and what their rights are , also that they can do anything they want, we have not to impose any ideas to them and, practically, it's not possible.

MS. PONTICELLI: If I could --

MINISTER SARABI: Of course.

MS. PONTICELLI: I just briefly wanted to say that as part of the American contingent, I'm delighted to be a part of this effort. There are a couple of themes I think that emerged very clearly in our discussions this week, and even when Minister Abdullah gave his presentation to the council meeting the other day. And he said, after these decades of war and suffering and deprivation, that what has emerged is a tremendous sense of optimism. He said, this is very characteristic of the Afghan people, this sense of optimism, and I think also from the women a great, great sense of determination.

Jamila, one of the youngest members of our group here today was telling us yesterday how her father was a key source of support for her, not only in making the documentary she made with her colleagues, but in making the tremendous decision to travel to the United States for this visit. She said her father encouraged her and he supported her, and that was very important.

So I think there are tangible signs of progress and I think they're represented here today.

MR. DENIG: Did you want to add something?

MS. RASEKH: Yes, I just wanted to add -- I believe your question was if Afghan women are welcoming the new constitution and all the changes -- then are they all liberated. And yeah, I think, based on my own experience of traveling to Afghanistan and interviewing women from all walks of life that women, themselves, welcome changes, they welcome education to their children, they welcome working. They are very thirsty for a change in their life. They're tired of all these oppressions. However, the pressure and restrictions and the oppression still are from the family male members and from the communities that they live at, from the society that still exists, and it's a long struggle. So that will be for a while.

Now, whether or not that will hinder women from getting involved in political participation, especially the next election which is a year from now -- I think it's a short time to get all women throughout Afghanistan educated and have them be involved, and equally and freely vote, knowing what, who they are voting for and what they are doing. That's a very difficult task for the Government of Afghanistan at this time to do, I believe, because they need resources, they need technical assistance, they need to get to places where people can't go, even. Women are all over the country where there are places that you can't go by car or, you know, as the Minister Abdullah was saying the other day, that there are places that you have to walk for days or weeks to get to people.

So it is a task ahead of the Minister of Women's Affairs and the Government of Afghanistan to get to the entire female population in Afghanistan to get them ready for election. But I am sure there is going to be a lot of pressure on women not to go out and vote or get involved, and that's a struggle that I'm sure many other countries have been through, and it's still going for Afghanistan.

This is the first election ever in the history of Afghanistan, so we can't expect this election to have a fair representative of women of Afghanistan. And I think the women who are currently involved are from big cities, and especially the major city like Kabul, and provinces where they have access to education and to centers, such as women's centers or other places, and they're educated. So we can't say that this election will get all women and they're all liberated. I think it's a long struggle.

MR. DENIG: Let's take the woman on the right there, followed by the gentleman in the middle.

QUESTION: Ahmadi from Radio Farda. There were a few newly formed parties asking for political and democratic reform from the central government. Was there any women organization involved, and do you see the level of political participation raising?

MINISTER SARABI: Yes. The political participation are raising and there are women who are a part of some political parties just raising, want to start their work. And I have seen women as a part of those parties. But, of course, we have some problems. We do not have enough number of women, educated women, and the high level of the education women, and we need a lot for the training women to take part in the political parties. But there is not any way for them to not to take part in this political participation.

MR. DENIG: I want to thank Minister Sarabi and the other members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, as well as Charlie Ponticelli.

MS. PONTICELLI: Thank you, Paul.

MR. DENIG: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.


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