On my many trips to Afghanistan as a senator and as secretary of state, I’ve met with a remarkable array of Afghan government officials, businesses people, development experts, diplomats, brave American troops and their courageous Afghan counterparts — all of whom have sacrificed for the promise of a safe, secure and sovereign Afghanistan.
But I come back time and again to one meeting with a remarkable woman -- a woman you may have never heard of -- who very well may represent a force of her own that could hold in the balance Afghanistan’s long-term future.
On my very first trip to Kabul as secretary of state, I met Roya Mahboob, and she’s changing Afghanistan. Roya is chief executive of the software development firm Citadel. She’s one of Afghanistan’s most successful Internet entrepreneurs.
In fact, the first time she competed for an Afghan government project, she beat out six male competitors and reinvested most of her profit with American business partner Film Annex to provide Internet access to 35,000 girls in Herat in western Afghanistan. She has received international recognition for her multilingual blog, The Women’s Annex, which has given the women from the region a high-profile platform. She has plans to reach hundreds of thousands more.
Roya is part of a great and too often untold success story. As opportunities for Afghan women grow, so do the possibilities for peace, economic prosperity and stability. Investing in Afghan women is one of the surest ways to guarantee that Afghanistan will sustain the gains of the past decade and never again become a safe haven for international terrorists.
“You have to show everybody that men and women are equal,” Roya told Newsweek last year. “Women can do something if you allow them. Give them opportunity and they can prove themselves.”
Roya said she discovered the Internet in high school and was determined to find a way to use it to help herself and other Afghans connect with the larger world. She later enrolled in technology courses sponsored by the United Nations and started her business with two classmates from Herat University in western Afghanistan.
Roya’s story reflects real progress for Afghanistan’s women. Don’t take my word for it. Just look at the facts.
In 2001, there were 900,000 Afghan children in school -- and all of them were boys. Today, there are 8 million and more than a third are girls. Twenty percent of students in the country’s universities are women, and adult literacy has risen from 15 percent to 26 percent.
Life expectancy is up, and maternal mortality has declined. Sixty percent of Afghans now have access to basic health care. Independent media and cellphone usage are flourishing. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product has nearly quintupled.
The advances over the past decade have been remarkable on many fronts. Now, as Afghans are stepping up to take responsibility for their future, we must remember that we all have a stake in their success.
There is much to do, and the road ahead will not be easy. Women and girls in Afghanistan are still undervalued, denied opportunities to go to school and forced to marry as children. Access to justice is poor. Discrimination and violence continue to pose major obstacles.
Many Afghans have legitimate concerns that the gains of the past decade will be lost. For Afghan women, the transition in 2014 casts a long shadow. We know the difficult history that led to decades of war in Afghanistan. We know the costs of walking away.
Afghan women know the costs, too. They paid the steepest price.
To ensure credible, inclusive and transparent elections in 2014, Afghan women are setting up voter registration centers in the provinces and traveling to remote corners of the country to advance the democratic process.
Secretary Kerry, Former Secretary Clinton, and Former First Lady Laura Bush Share the Stage With Afghan Women in November 2013
The United States is encouraged that hundreds of women from all over the country are running for positions on provincial councils. And we applaud efforts to recruit and train female poll workers who can assist women voters.
Lasting peace and prosperity in a unified Afghanistan will take root only when women have as loud a voice as men have -- not just on Election Day, but every day.
Afghan women also are taking great risks to support the security transition.
They’re joining the army and police, serving as judges and breaking down barriers that prevent women from speaking out in cases of domestic violence and abuse.
This past summer, the Afghan National Security Forces took over lead responsibility in providing security across the country. We have made a commitment, along with our NATO partners, to train and support the ANSF beyond 2014. And make no mistake: Bringing women into the force and supporting their safe and meaningful participation will be a major part of that effort.
Afghan women also are leading the charge to build a more prosperous economy.
They understand that Afghanistan should no longer be a prisoner of its geography. It is the nexus of a regional tapestry linked by roads, railways, products and markets. That’s why women are forming business connections across the region.
And we’re doing our part.
We’re training and mentoring Afghan women entrepreneurs. We’ve launched regional economic initiatives to link Afghan women to markets in South and Central Asia. And we’re investing in the education of Afghan girls so they can break the cycle of poverty and become leaders in business and politics.
Roya is one of those leaders. As she says, all women “can start their own business and nothing should stop them.”
Afghan women aren’t stopping. They’re marching forward, and we all need to march with them.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears on Politico. The essay is part of a series in which dozens of women will reveal what women they most admire. The series is part of “Women Rule,” a unique effort this fall by POLITICO, Google and The Tory Burch Foundation exploring how women are leading change in politics, policy and their communities. See more essays here.
About the Author: John Kerry serves as the 68th Secretary of State.