During my first trip to Afghanistan as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, I was struck by something one woman said to me during a meeting with a group of female civil society actors in Kabul. She said, "Stop looking at us as victims, but rather as the leaders that we are."
That thought always comes to mind when I meet other Afghan women -- as I often do -- who have defied the odds, made sacrifices, and have emerged as leaders, activists and advocates in so many areas, working to advance not just the rights of women and girls, but the future of their country. This week, I once again had the privilege of speaking with a group of dynamic and dedicated Afghan women, this time from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, via a video teleconference arranged by U.S. diplomats and military, including members of the U.S. Army's Female Engagement Teams, serving in Afghanistan.
A group of 16 women gathered in Jalalabad to take part in this conversation. They included journalists, teachers, human rights defenders, entrepreneurs, civil service and health workers, an elected member of a Provincial Council as well as Nangarhar's Director of Women's Affairs. They exemplify the diverse ways Afghan women are using their own talents to contribute to their society. One woman, for example, consults with prosecutors and police to assure that the judicial system treats women fairly. Another is a manager of a woman-run radio station that uses media as a tool to raise awareness of domestic violence and gender equality. The youngest participant is a recent university graduate who participated in an exchange program in the United States last summer. When she returned from her trip, she created a women's association at Nangarhar University that now has 30 female members. She later received an Embassy Kabul small grant which she is using to create ten home businesses for disabled and vulnerable women in her province.
We had a very frank and productive conversation about how they see the role and status of women in their country, the importance of having women participate fully in the political process and in the upcoming elections, and ways they can ensure the hard-won gains they have made over the past decade are not reversed when international forces turn over responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces in 2014.
Women's rights are enshrined in their Constitution and over 25 percent of seats in the Afghan National Assembly are filled by women. Afghan women today live an average of 15 years longer than they did a decade ago and fewer women are dying in child birth. Educational opportunities for women and girls have expanded considerably: nearly 40 percent of students enrolled in schools are girls and 120,000 female students have graduated from secondary schools in the last five years alone. About 40,000 young women are enrolled in public and private universities, with more enrolling each year. These gains are helping to lay the foundation for continued progress.
Not surprisingly, however, these Afghan women leaders, like so many others, are worried about the future as the transition goes forward. Yet, they also have concrete ideas for ways the international community can continue to support them and where best to focus efforts.
The women urged that U.S. leaders and the international community continue to work with the Afghan government to ensure that the judicial system is responsive , perpetrators of crimes are prosecuted, and that Afghan security forces protect women from violence and abuse. In terms of political participation, they believe that women must be engaged at all levels to fully participate as voters, candidates, polling staff and searchers. They also expressed a pressing need for capacity-building to be effective candidates and officials. They described the importance of an independent media and urged strengthening of women-run radio stations which often provide the only viable space for women's voices to be heard and for women to receive critical information.
They also want to play a greater role in the economic sector. They pointed out that women need jobs because, with their own income, they will be more empowered in the home and be less vulnerable to domestic violence or abuse. They favored affirmative efforts by companies who are investing in Afghanistan and opening businesses to hire greater numbers of women to fill the jobs. They also focused on the importance of education as a bedrock investment and described the need for an increase in programs to enable disadvantaged girls to become better equipped to succeed in school, as well as -- at the other end of the spectrum -- the need for greater opportunities for young women to have access to higher education.
These were just some of the ideas they shared with us. It was clear throughout our discussion that any commitment to Afghanistan's future must go hand-in-hand with a continuing commitment to the Afghan women. After all, no country can get ahead and no potential for peace will be realized if more than half the population -- its women -- are marginalized or left behind.