Thank you Ambassador Verveer for hosting this timely event and for your thoughtful remarks. It is an honor to be among the distinguished speakers and panelists here today. Thank you Representatives Houlahan and Waltz and Ambassador Rahmani, for participating. I also want to applaud the efforts by the many Afghans and their leaders, including President Ghani, CEO Abdullah, who have emphasized their commitment to women’s rights.
As you know, the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan is rooted in our common interest in confronting the scourge of international terrorism. From the beginning, the United States has recognized that preventing terrorism from re-emerging in Afghanistan meant partnering with the Afghan people to build the foundations for a stable and economically viable society and state. This cannot occur if half the country’s population is deprived of opportunity. Helping Afghan women help themselves was and is part of our national security strategy. It is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do, and you will hear Ambassador Khalilzad address the priority we attach to a peace process that is informed by Afghan women and respectful of their constitutional rights.
Let’s remember where we started: In 2001, conditions for women in Afghanistan were dire. Access to education was limited with fewer than 900,000 children in school and almost no girls registered. Today, nine million children, including over 3.5 million girls, attend primary and secondary school. An additional 100,000 women are also studying at public and private universities. Infant mortality rates were high. Nearly one in ten Afghan babies died before their first birthday and there were only 400 midwives to service the entire Afghan population. Since 2002, USAID has trained more than 28,000 community health workers and over 2500 midwives – half of the entire population of midwives in the public sector.
Ambassador Verveer has been a long-time champion for Afghan women, as have others in this room, and together we have achieved significant gains over the last 18 years. Since 2002, the United States has committed over two billion dollars for the advancement of women and gender-related programs in Afghanistan. Thanks to these efforts, and to the courage of the Afghan people, Afghanistan is a very different country today than it was 20 years ago, and women are a large part of that story.
The impact of giving millions of Afghans the chance to learn to read and write, and hear about their history, and generally broaden their perspectives in school cannot be overstated. Since 2008, USAID has printed and distributed more than 170 million textbooks to schools and trained more than 480,000 teachers. Over one million Afghans visit USAID-supported health facilities every month, of which the majority are women and children under the age of five. In the last 18 years, women’s life expectancy has increased to 64 years, from the low 40s in 2001.
In Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections last fall, a third of the approximately four million voters were women, with over 400 female candidates running for office. In Daikundi province, we saw two women elected to parliament, going beyond the constitutional quota, with a woman winning in open competition against male candidates.
Asia Foundation polling shows that 89 percent of Afghans support a woman’s right to vote, a percentage that has been steadily rising over the years. For the first time last year, most Afghans said women should have equal opportunity in political leadership. Why? because in contrast to when the Taliban precluded women from all forms of public life, including as teachers, civil servants and journalists, today Afghans are seeing the power of women in action.
Women have served the government in key cabinet positions – including as Ministers of Public Health, Women’s Affairs, Counternarcotics, and Mining, and as Permanent Representative to the UN. Women now make up 27 percent of civil service employees in Afghanistan. Five times as many women are registered for the judicial entrance exam. There are women television announcers and reporters on the street. Almost 25 percent of non-Taliban participants in this week’s Intra-Afghan Dialogue in Doha were women. Ambassador Rahmani’s presence here today illustrates the extraordinary leadership gains of Afghan women.
While it would be hard to overstate how much Afghanistan has changed over the last 20 years, we all recognize how much remains to be done. While many Afghans and friends of Afghanistan are rightly concerned about how women’s rights will be protected following a political settlement, we must be clear-eyed that the status of women in Afghanistan today remains far short of where it should be. The challenges to women’s rights and opportunities are not restricted to the Taliban. Afghanistan remains one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman: In 2018, the United Nations ranked Afghanistan 153 out of 160 countries for gender equality, despite a constitution and other legal frameworks that protect women’s rights.
In interviews with women in Taliban-controlled areas, they have been vocal about the restrictions placed on them, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and on education for girls beyond puberty. But across Afghanistan, according to the Asia Foundation, Afghans consistently cite lack of education, access to justice, lack of employment opportunities, violence, and lack of services as the biggest challenges facing women. According to UNICEF, 3.7 million children – 60 percent of them girls – remain out-of-school in both Taliban and government controlled areas. Low female enrollment in schools can be explained in part by the paucity of female teachers, especially in rural schools. Inadequate sanitation facilities, sociocultural factors, and traditional beliefs also undermine girls’ education. Corruption in education and health services is also a problem, whether it is teachers are not consistently paid, or clinics and hospitals where patients must pay nearly 75 percent of medical costs out of pocket. And yes, pervasive gender discrimination also slows progress. An overwhelming majority of Afghan women are believed to experience domestic violence at least once in their lifetimes. Women in rural areas have it especially hard, and that is where some 75 percent of women live. The insurgency poses a threat to physical safety, as do areas under government control that lack accountability and fail to investigate cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes.
So the challenges ahead are daunting, and that is why it is important that fora like this keep a spotlight on the issue. We remain committed to working with our Afghan partners to build on the progress that has already been made. Looking ahead, we will focus on enabling Afghan women to enter and succeed in the workforce, access essential health and education services, and engage in civil society advocacy for women’s empowerment. We are working with major donors and the World Bank on a package of economic initiatives designed to sustain a political settlement and support inclusive long-term economic growth. Many of the economic initiatives will directly support women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.
Even as we seek a negotiated political settlement to the Afghan conflict, we will continue to make it clear that Afghanistan’s future relationship with the international community, and particularly donors, will depend heavily upon the inclusivity of that peace, including the rights of women. No current or future Afghan government should count on international donor support if that government restricts, represses, or relegates Afghan women to second-class status.
The United States and the international community remain committed to standing with Afghan women. We will continue to work with the Afghan government to support the constitutional protections and gains made in the last 18 years.
Thank you Ambassador Verveer and thank you to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security for hosting this important event. Next, you will hear directly from Ambassador Khalilzad on his efforts to ensure Afghan women have a seat at the table as Afghans come together to decide their political future.