Any peace deal in Afghanistan that excludes women or tries to roll back their rights is doomed to fail, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
Speaking at an event yesterday in Washington marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, Clinton pledged the U.S. will defend the advances Afghan women have made since the fall of the Taliban. Any peace deal that may emerge from exploratory talks with insurgents must abide by the Afghan constitution, which enshrines rights for women, she said.
“We will not waver on this point,” Clinton assured guests at the event, including Afghan officials and U.S. business leaders who have supported programs for Afghan women. A peace agreement “excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It’s a figment that will not last,” she said to applause.
The Obama administration is seeking negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban to help bring an end to a military conflict that began in October 2001. Exploratory talks have gone slowly, stymied most recently by disagreements over a potential U.S. transfer of Taliban detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Clinton met yesterday with visiting Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, whose government has insisted on the same “red lines” for reconciliation talks with the Taliban as the Obama administration: insurgents must renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaeda and abide by the Afghan constitution.
Still, Afghan women activists and some in the U.S. government have expressed concern that the Afghan government, in its desire to take insurgents off the battlefield and end the war, might bend to Taliban demands to curtail women’s advances. Under the Taliban in the 1990s, Afghan women were largely prevented from attending school, holding jobs, participating in government or leaving home without male escorts.
“Many are worried that in whatever future negotiations that might occur, women -- their rights, their roles, their concerns -- will be sacrificed and the old days will return,” Clinton said.
“The United States cannot and will not let that happen,” she said. “Let there be no doubt that even as the U.S. role in Afghanistan changes during the next few years of transition,” with the drawdown of U.S. combat troops, “it’s absolutely critical we protect” women’s gains and expand on them, said Clinton, a longtime advocate of women’s rights. “We will continue to stand with and work closely with Afghan women.”
Clinton cited a list of achievements for women since the fall of the Taliban, from most basic health and social indicators to accomplishments in politics and industry.
The average life expectancy for Afghan women in 2001 was 44; now it is 62, Clinton said. Back then, girls were prohibited from attending government schools; now, almost 3 million do, representing a third of primary and secondary school students, she said. She said 100,000 have graduated from high school, and 15,000 enrolled in universities in the last decade.
Rassoul cited the advances of women in government. There were no female politicians under the Taliban; now they make up about 28 percent of parliament and serve on provincial councils nationwide. One in four government workers are women, as were 40 percent of the voters in the last election, Rassoul said. On the Afghan High Peace Council, nine of the 70 members are women, according to the peace council.
Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, joined Clinton at the State Department to praise those advances and announced the foundation was pledging $1 million in grants for higher education for women at Afghan universities.
Former First Lady Laura Bush, who was instrumental in establishing the U.S-Afghan Women’s Council a decade ago, highlighted the accomplishments of women in commerce. Under the Taliban, women were barred from owning or operating businesses. Today, she said, there are hundreds of women-owned businesses, from artisan workshops to financial services and engineering firms. A third of the workforce is made up of women, Bush said.
Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, said yesterday that several companies have invested in training and education for Afghan women, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., automaker Daimler AG and Kate Spade New York, a designer fashion company.
“There are still problems” including violence against women, Verveer said in an interview. “The biggest fear today is will there be rollback and will they have a seat at the table” for peace talks, she said. She praised the Afghan government for pledging not to allow that to happen.
“This isn’t a favor to women,” she said. “If women are silenced, that potential for peace will be stymied.”