Why the U.S. Is Investing in Afghan Girls’ Education

Afghan Girl

At Georgetown University today, Secretary of State John Kerry, former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush all gave support to “Advancing Afghan Women.” Here are some of Kerry’s remarks:

… We all know that creating opportunities for women is not just the right thing to do. It’s also a strategic necessity. Societies where women are safe, where women are empowered to exercise their rights and to move their communities forward—these societies are more prosperous and more stable—not occasionally, but always. And nowhere is the pursuit of this vision more important, and in many ways more compelling and immediate and possible than in Afghanistan.

If I had to walk blind into a district in Afghanistan and I could only ask one question to determine how secure it was and how much progress it was making, I would ask, “What proportion of the girls here are able to go to school?” There’s no question in my mind that investing in Afghan women is the surest way to guarantee that Afghanistan will sustain the gains of the last decade and never again become a safe haven for international terrorists. …

In 2001, maternal mortality [in Afghanistan] was 1,600 per 100,000 births; today, it’s down by 80 percent. In 2001, life expectancy for the average Afghan was 42 years; today, it’s 62 years and rising. In 2001, 9 percent of Afghans had access to basic healthcare; today, 60 percent of Afghans live within an hour of basic health services. In 2001, there was only one television station and it was owned by the government; today, there are 75 stations and all of those but two are privately owned. And in 2001, there were virtually no cellphones in the country; today, there are 18 million covering about 90 percent of residential areas. 80 percent of Afghan women now have access to a cellphone, meaning that they are connected to their families, their friends and, most importantly, they’re connected to the world and to their futures. …

Now what has moved me—and I mean moved me—in my meetings with an impressive group of Afghan women entrepreneurs is that when Afghan women move forward, believe me, they never want to go back. Not to the days when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Not to the days before the Taliban when the country was torn apart by violence. And that is why it is so important that we keep investing in and defending the progress that empowers Afghan women, as well as men, to be able to have their voices heard and to buy into their future and shape their future. What has been achieved is nothing less than remarkable, and it would have been more than a tragedy if the world ever allowed this progress to be threatened or, worse yet, to be abandoned.

So the question now is: Where do we go from here? Because as we think about the future, we are mindful of the challenges that Afghan women continue to face. This is a critical moment. Many of the women that I’ve met share very legitimate concerns that the gains of the past decade could be lost. All that I talked about could be wiped out. And the truth is their anxiety that I hear when I visit Afghanistan, or you’ll hear today, it’s palpable. Despite the significant achievements of Afghan women and girls, many challenges still remain. And we remember too well the difficulties, the difficult history that led to the decades of war in Afghanistan. We know the costs of walking away. Believe me, Afghan women know the costs because they have always paid the steepest price.

So I say to you today: As Afghanistan sees women standing up in Afghanistan to take control of their country’s future—not only for themselves, but for all Afghans—we have to be determined that they will not stand alone. America will stand up with them as they shape a strong and united Afghanistan that secures the rightful place in the community of nations. And that is why President Obama and President Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement last year that lays out our mutual commitments. And that’s why America’s relationship with Afghans is changing; it’s not ending.

There’s a lot to do, so much to do, and obviously the road ahead is not easy. The violence that has plagued Afghanistan for decades has left very deep wounds, and it is going to take time to heal. We also know that security is going to be a real challenge. We know that Afghans have to strengthen the rule of law. They have to improve access to justice. We also know that discrimination and violence against women continue to be major problems.

But I know every one of these women and the women in Afghanistan today will remain determined, and we have an obligation to remain determined and stand by them. We intend to make clear that securing the rights of Afghan women and girls is not just a challenge for this moment; it’s a generational challenge. In fact, we’ve already made a significant down payment, but make no mistake—finishing this job is going to take courage, and not just the courage of women in Afghanistan. …

As we speak, as we are here, Afghan women are leading the charge to ensure that the elections next year are credible, inclusive, and transparent. … Gulalay Achekzai is one of those women. Gulalay is a teacher by profession, but she’s always had this passion for public service. She used to work as a human rights commissioner in Kandahar. Today, she’s serving on the Independent Election Commission. She told President Karzai she has only one character flaw—that she fears no one. …

Afghan women are also at the forefront of the second part of the transition—the security transition. … This is one of the most stunning things. … These folks in uniform – unprecedented. They’re joining the army and the police, and they’re serving as judges, prosecutors in some of the most conservative parts of the country. It’s an extraordinary transformation.

Afghan women are also taking enormous risk to support Afghanistan’s third transition. That’s the economic transition. And women like Hassina Sayed are leading the charge.

I met Hassina in March. She started a trucking company, I think, about 10 years ago. She started it with $500. Now, she has 500 trucks. Of her 650 employees, 300 are women who not so long ago would absolutely never have had the opportunity they have today. She told me that she always knew she wanted to be a businesswoman when she grew up. And I asked why, and she said simply, “Because then I’ll get to be my own boss.” …

Hassina knows that the benefits of investing in women and girls are not limited to one village, one province, or one country alone. They ripple out across the borders. You all remember that great quote of Robert Kennedy’s about rippling and creating a huge current that sweeps down the mightiest walls of oppression. That’s what’s happening. And that’s why investing in the training and mentoring of Afghan women entrepreneurs is so important. … And that strengthens those women to have those connections to those other parts of the region. That’s why we’re investing in the education of Afghan girls, so they can break the cycle of poverty and become community leaders and engaged citizens …

As I was flying back from Kabul in March, my staff handed me a letter from a young Afghan girl who had earned a scholarship from the State Department to study at the American University of Afghanistan. … One line in that girl’s letter stood out to me. She wrote about the importance of education and how her goal is not just to help herself, but to lift her community, her society and her country … She feels ownership over the future that she is creating in Afghanistan, and that’s not something that her sisters or her mother could say even a decade ago. But girls all over Afghanistan … are saying it today and they are living that dream thanks to the courage and the leadership of women themselves in Afghanistan.

Photo of girl from Kabul from Flickr user AfghanistanMatters under license from Creative Commons 2.0

 

Comments

  1. Afghanistan used to have one of the highest percentage of girls in school in the world. That number dropped partly because of US involvement. The training that we are giving to Afghan police includes discouraging them from arresting rapists. If you are going to report that the US is investing in Afghan schools, you should verify that fact and not just repeat the words of the powerful.

  2. As positive as these remarks may seem, it saddens me to read time and again, the rhetoric surrounding women and development.
    Why do we talk about “investing in women” and “girls as capital”? Are they mere tools for U.S. security? Or simply a way to get U.S. citizens to continue to buy into our foreign affairs policy which meddles in situations all over the world, starts wars and then justifies everything by building schools for girls?
    Yes, there are oppressive regimes and bad governance in many places and clearly some women are better off than others. But does the solution to a “better life” for these women lie in signing agreements with male heads of state (which will probably not be upheld)? Do we really need to justify the empowerment of women in the global south economically?
    Why not allow these women agency so in their own words they can tell us how we can help, if they even want our collaboration. Perhaps the best we can do for women in Afghanistan is to stop speaking for them, stop victimizing them and stop using them as tools for our own security programs and the imperialist agenda we want to expand.

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