Women’s Voices from Afghanistan and the Neighboring Countries

"There is one area that calls for serious ambition and determination. That is women’s rights. I am very concerned that the position of women is not centre stage anymore. This is the reason why we are there. We cannot accept that women are once more marginalized, as happened under the Taleban. However difficult the circumstances may be, in terms of security or social standards, we may not put women’s rights on hold until the situation eases."

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me here today, and thank you, Gender Concerns International, for organising this conference. It is a very important conference, because it focuses on the role of women in Afghan society and their contribution to reconstruction and development.
Afghanistan tops many countries’ political, humanitarian and development agendas. Enormous steps have been taken over the last few years. I have visited Afghanistan on many occasions in the past three years and I have witnessed real progress. My last visit six weeks ago was no exception. Important infrastructure projects have been completed, including dams and an irrigation channel in Uruzgan. A bazaar and manufacturing workshop is also being built. Projects like this bring essential improvements to the daily lives of many Afghans.
But obviously, many challenges remain. Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world, with the lowest levels of education and the highest levels of maternal mortality, as well as rampant crime and insecurity, widespread corruption and many other governance issues. The forthcoming conferences, in London in two weeks time, and in Kabul later this year, will have full agendas on issues of security, governance, cross-border issues and implementation of the Afghan government’s programmes. And we should not forget the parliamentary elections in the spring.
There is one area that calls for serious ambition and determination. That is women’s rights. I am very concerned that the position of women is not centre stage anymore. This is the reason why we are there. We cannot accept that women are once more marginalized, as happened under the Taleban. However difficult the circumstances may be, in terms of security or social standards, we may not put women’s rights on hold until the situation eases.
Much has been done to improve the situation of Afghan women, particularly when it comes to access to health care and education. More and more Afghan girls are going to school. Since 2006, a new primary school for girls, two additional girls’ secondary schools and a school for higher education for girls have been built with Dutch support in Tarin Kowt. At this moment 5000 girls attend primary education and there are 45 female teachers in Uruzgan, where there were none before. Mother and child mortality is decreasing. Today about 60% of pregnant women in Uruzgan receive pre-natal tetanus shots, up from only 26% three years ago, and there are 17 female health workers, up from only three in 2006. These are great achievements. But we have to admit that while working on these very relevant, basic and sometimes even lifesaving improvements we – the international community – may have neglected the political or leadership roles Afghan women can and should play.
However difficult and dangerous the situation, there are many brave women in Afghanistan who stand up to be counted, who do not accept a role in the margins of society. They fight for a role in government, in organisations, in companies, in the media or in schools. They are incredibly courageous. They risk their lives, since there are still forces that believe women have no right to do this.
Women like Zarghona Walizada, who started her own transport business in 2003, after returning to Afghanistan from exile. At 38, she is now the owner and director of the biggest transport company in Afghanistan, employing 450 people, of whom 449 are men. Threats are part of her life. Since 2003, 13 of her truck drivers have been killed and 36 of her trucks have been set on fire. The threats she receives come not only from the Taliban, but also from her competitors, who are convinced that a woman in business is not an option. But for Zarghona Walizada, giving up is not an option. She is committed to building her company.
For the international community, giving up on women like Zarghona Walizada should not be an option, either. I believe it to be women’s inalienable right to have an influence on politics and society in their country. This applies to all women, even if they live in Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan have to be more courageous and more determined to achieve things that are taken for granted in other countries.
Women like police officer Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar, head of Kandahar's department of crimes against women. In September 2008 this mother of six children, in her early 40s, was killed by Taliban rebels. ‘We killed Malalai Kakar,’ a Taliban spokesman told the news agency AFP. ‘She was our target, and we successfully eliminated her.’
And in Uruzgan there is Mallalei: a common Afghan women, born and raised in a small and poor village near to Tarin Kowt. After her husband, to whom she was married off at an early age, was killed by the Taleban, her life took a completely different turn. She promised herself she would stand up against the Taleban. She started organizing secret meetings for women, and produced anti Taleban propaganda, standing up for women’s rights. This is why she got arrested by the Taliban, who tortured and sexually abused her. Subsequently, Mallalei ran away to Tarin Kowt where she continued her protests. Her actions led to the founding of the first women’s organization in Uruzgan, which soon counted hundreds of female supports from the surroundings of TK. Later on, she applied for a position with the Afghan National Police. She was the first woman ever to do so. A number a women have followed her example.
Nowadays, Mallalei frequently gives interviews about the negative effects of the Taliban’s action on the development of Afghanistan. She promised herself to continue doing so for the rest of her life. Mallalei is a true Afghan heroine.
I know that all the women from Afghanistan who have come here to present their views at this conference, who speak up at other conferences and meetings, have had their share of threats and intimidation. I know that people like Dr Sima Samar, the Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the former minister of Women’s Affairs in the Interim Administration of Afghanistan faces threats daily. I have seen that women in Afghanistan have to be more courageous and more determined to achieve things that are taken for granted in other countries. These women believe in their cause. We must believe in them.
But there is more to it than it being women’s right to participate. It is also a basic necessity. It is an illusion to think that we can take sustainable steps towards the stability and reconstruction of any society while excluding half of the population. It starts with the assessment of needs. As the Swedish Major-General Bengt Andersson said at a meeting here in the Peace Palace last December, ‘If you only talk with 50% of the population, you’ll never be able to make a 100% correct assessment of a situation’. So we have to empower women, to step aside and give women space to make their voices heard. We have to enable them to make their vital contribution to creating a sustainable peace, reconstruction and reconciliation process. More and more women in conflict areas have come to the conclusion that the only way towards peace is through investment in gender equality, and not the other way around. I agree with them.
So the women of Afghanistan deserve all our support in their endeavour to work towards a better, more stable and more prosperous society. They deserve our support if they want to send their daughters to school, and if they want to run for high office themselves. They deserve the right to healthcare services, but also to study medicine and help other people. The women in Afghanistan deserve our support to participate in building their society. They deserve our support to make their voices heard.
Some people warn that ‘you have to be aware of the local cultural context’, or that ‘you have to take local traditional values into account’. We know what can happen if you go along with this line of thinking for too long: you end up accepting frightful ideologies like those of the Taliban. Ideologies which exclude women from any form of public life, and deny them education, employment and participation. Ideologies that legalise violence against women. There are limits to what can be seen as ‘local culture’ and ‘traditional values’. Cultural sensitivity is crucial, but they do not override women’s rights. The limits are very clear: they have been set down in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Afghan government ratified CEDAW in March 2003. This was a clear promise of change for the better, by both the Afghan government and the international community.
‘We have the promises of the world’ is in fact the title of the latest report on women’s rights in Afghanistan, published by Human Rights Watch last December. The title is a quote from the Afghan activist Wazhma Frogh. She added, ‘But we still wait to see what more they will do’. From this report, we learn that, after initial positive steps, there have been more steps backwards than forwards in recent years in the position of women in Afghanistan. The few women in public positions are unsafe. The number of women in the civil service has actually decreased from 31% in 2006 to 21.4% in 2009. Only about 5% of the employees in the legal system – judges, attorneys and prosecutors – are female; 0.4% of police officers are female; 0.6% of army personnel are female, And all these women are at risk: they are constantly under threat and hardly get any protection.
Another equally worrying conclusion of this report is that Afghan women feel abandoned by the international community. They see that violence against women still goes unpunished. And it is incredibly widespread: a survey by Human Rights Watch in 2008 estimated that 87.2% of Afghan women had experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetime.
We have to do something about this. And we have to do it fast. It is our moral obligation and a commitment the international community has made.
In 2000, the international community adopted UN Security Council Resolution 1325 that guarantees women’s right to participate in all decision-making processes in which prevention or resolution of conflicts, or the reconstruction of post-conflict countries is being discussed.
And more recently, in October 2009, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1889, in which the international community urges ‘Member States, international and regional organisations to take further measures to improve women’s participation during all stages of peace processes, particularly in conflict resolution, post-conflict planning and peacebuilding, including by enhancing their engagement in political and economic decision-making at early stages of recovery processes, through inter alia promoting women’s leadership and capacity to engage in aid management and planning, supporting women’s organisations, and countering negative societal attitudes about women’s capacity to participate equally’.
The Afghan government recognises the urgency too. In a reaction to resolution 1889, the Afghan UN ambassador stated: ‘Afghanistan and the international community made a promise to each other that what happened under the Taliban would never happen again. More importantly, we made the same promise to the women of Afghanistan.’
I intend to keep this promise. In the Netherlands, we have set up a National Action Plan to implement Resolution 1325. This Plan is primarily a framework for cooperation to step up efforts to secure active participation in peace and reconstruction processes, to include gender perspectives in peace missions, to improve access to justice for victims of sexual violence, and to report and punish all those who commit these crimes.
The Dutch action plan is a truly national plan: it has been signed by both civil society organisations and the government, and we have all agreed on a number of action points. This has the advantage of making us jointly accountable for fulfilling our commitments. In fact, this conference and the previous conference organised by Gender Concerns International in Kabul in July last year are good examples of what we are trying to achieve with our Dutch National Action Plan. That is to help women in countries like Afghanistan to sit at the negotiation tables that decide on their countries’ future.
As one of the signatories of the National Action Plan, I have pledged to work towards more equal representation of women in negotiations and reconstruction processes. In a recent session of the Dutch Parliament I announced that the Netherlands will make a great effort to support the Afghans in drafting their own Afghan National Action Plan to implement Resolution 1325 or something of that kind.
Just before this meeting I discussed these issues with Melanne Verveer, the US Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues. I am delighted that she has come over from Washington to attend this important meeting. In her major policy speech on development last week, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said, ‘Today, the United States is taking steps to put women front and centre in our development work’. Ambassador Verveer and I concluded that we were in full agreement on this. We have agreed that I will go and discuss future lines of cooperation with Secretary Clinton before the spring. We are also happy that a gender symposium is being organised on 27 January on the eve of the Afghanistan conference in London. And we will do all we can to ensure that women have a few minutes on the conference agenda for the 28th to formally present their statement to all delegations.
In the short term, I see many opportunities to fulfil the commitment arising from Resolutions 1325 and 1889. For the Afghan government, the level of women’s participation in the new administration will be the litmus test.
It is a good sign that president Karzai has included three female ministers in his latest cabinet proposal, up from just one in the proposal that was sent back by parliament a few weeks ago. I hope that he will include at least one of these female ministers in his delegation to the conference in London and have her play an active role.
Another challenge, for both the Afghan government and the international community, will be the participation of women in the Afghan delegations to the forthcoming conferences on the future of Afghanistan, starting with the London Conference in two weeks time.
Experience in other countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and South Sudan shows that women can play a crucial constructive role in peace processes and the reconstruction of their post-conflict countries. Take the Sudanese Women’s Empowerment for Peace Platform (SuWEP). This initiative, which started in 1998, brought together women from government, civil society and the political sphere, from North and South Sudan. Within a few years, these women were recognised as playing a major role in the peace process and they were invited more and more frequently to attend the peace negotiations. Eventually, in 2005, SuWEP was nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
However long the road ahead may be, there are people who are a source of inspiration and hope. Afghanistan has these truly incredible examples of women who, against all odds, make a difference. Some are well known internationally, like Dr Sima Samar. Some work in relative anonimity, like Zarghona Walizada, whom I mentioned ealier. They all pay a great price.
Dr Sima Samar, who has been recognised for her leadership and courage by dozens of human and women’s rights organisations all over the world, continues her work in Afghanistan. Despite the difficulties she faces she is fully dedicated to her work. She has said in the past that her work may be only a drop in the ocean, but at least she feels that that drop is positive. She is of the opinion that if we empower the Afghan women who aspire to leadership, political and otherwise, through capacity building and moral support, more women will stand for election, start businesses and make Afghanistan a better place to live. I agree with her.

These courageous women show that change is possible, even in Afghanistan. Let us support them in their fight to make Afghanistan a better place to live!

Thank you.