About the Author: Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer serves as director of the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.
I traveled to Afghanistan on June 24, to learn firsthand what conditions are like for Afghan women today and to reaffirm our commitment to them. I spent time in Kabul and in Badghis, and I spoke with women and men at every level that I could: parliamentarians in Kabul, and villagers in Badghis; female candidates for the Provincial Council, brave businesswomen, journalists, and dozens of NGO workers. I visited a state-of-the-art women’s detention center that housed inmates whose crime was suspicion of having a boyfriend. And I heard how this clean and modern jail was sometimes the safest place for such young women: upon their return, some former prisoners have been shot by their relatives; others have been scalded to death by boiling water.
I returned with the firm conviction that we must stop losing ground on women’s rights in Afghanistan.
I saw progress in the unity of the women’s organizations, which speak with one voice now more than ever. I saw hope in the growing realization, among ordinary Afghan citizens, that a country in which 42 percent of the population earns less than one dollar a day cannot afford to let half its economic potential go untapped. But I also saw the challenges that remain: the 700 schools that the Taliban burned down last year alone; the crimes against women that will never be solved or, likely, even investigated; the women who remain unaware that their own national Constitution guarantees them equal rights.
Afghanistan is preparing for elections, both for president and for the provincial councils. This is the time to ensure that all the candidates in what we hope will be fair and inclusive contests prioritize women’s needs. We must work with Afghanistan, through the Ministry of Interior, to ensure that all candidates have the physical security and freedom of movement they need to conduct their campaigns. We must ensure that every woman is able to vote and able to cast her ballot free from coercion.
The status of women in Afghanistan is a bellwether for the future of that country. When we strengthen them – when they make progress towards an equal political voice, towards economic participation, towards access to education and healthcare and freedom from violence – we create a stable and lasting foundation for a peaceful and prosperous society.