Thank you, Minister Koenders for your powerful statement and personal commitment to these issues.
It is fitting that we gather at the Peace Palace – the embodiment of the idea of world peace and justice – to listen to women’s voices from war-torn Afghanistan and neighboring countries. I want to thank Gender Concerns International for convening this conference and for recognizing the importance of women’s coming together regionally to address critical challenges that they have in common – challenges that transcend borders. There is much that can be accomplished by working together for a regional approach.
Last night I had the pleasure to meet the women who are with us from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We came together at a dinner organized at the Parliament by Member of Parliament, Chantal Gillard, and had a productive exchange of ideas. It is also a great personal pleasure for me to be back in The Hague. The United States and The Netherlands have strong ties based on shared values. I want to salute the Dutch government for its global leadership on development assistance and its commitment to women’s rights and women’s progress around the world.
Since I arrived yesterday I have had excellent meetings with the Foreign Minister, the Minister for Development Cooperation and many other officials who have impressed me by their commitment to the issues that bring us together. This country has been a partner to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and its contributions to security, stability, humanitarian relief, reconstruction and development in Uruzgan Province and more broadly across the country have been significant. As Hillary Clinton aptly said when she came here as First Lady, “The
Netherlands has played a unique role in moving us closer to a world in which peace, justice and freedom prevail.”
I am also happy that U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Fay Levin, could be here this afternoon. We are proud of the leadership and commitment she brings to her position.
Let me put this issue in context.
The major economic, security, governance and environmental challenges of our times cannot be solved without the participation of women at all levels of society. Investing in women is one of the most powerful forces for reshaping the globe and, as yet, one that is still significantly untapped. Secretary Clinton, in a recent major address on international development, noted that we are focusing more on our investment on women and girls. As she has observed, “Until women around the world are accorded their rights and have opportunities for education, health care, and gainful employment, global progress and prosperity will have its own glass ceiling.”
Yet the fact remains that women are still the great majority of the poor around the globe. Girls make up two-thirds of the unschooled. Violence against women is a global scourge. The AIDS pandemic has a woman’s face. Too many women still die in pregnancy and childbirth. There are still too few women serving on provincial councils, in the halls of parliaments and at the tables of power addressing conflict resolution -- places where the decisions that affect them, their families, and societies are being made without their participation. Around the world, the places that are the most dangerous for women also pose the greatest threats to international peace and security. The correlation is clear: where women are oppressed, governance is weak and extremism is more likely to take hold. Raising the status of women would go a long way to keeping states from failing and terrorists from succeeding. The status of women is a bellwether for the viability of a nation.
It is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if half its citizens are left behind.
We know from an accumulating body of studies and research from governments, multilateral organizations, corporations and think tanks that investing in women is the single most effective development strategy that we have for poverty alleviation, economic growth and a country’s general prosperity.
Let me touch on just four investments in women that produce significant dividends for all of society:
First, investing in education for girls is the single most effective development investment a country can make. The benefits to girls and families are well documented, from better health and nutrition to delayed marriages and economic opportunity.
Second, investing in women’s economic participation is important because women drive economic growth. Moreover, they invest up to 90 percent of their earnings in their families and communities, which is two times the rate of men. Women need access to credit if they are to grow businesses. Microcredit has lifted up tens of millions of women and their families out of poverty, but microcredit is not enough – as important as it is. Women also need the ability to grow businesses beyond microenterprises into small and medium size businesses. They need markets for their products, and they need education and training. Moreover, women’s interests need to be included in overall economic policies. President Obama’s global Food Security Initiative recognizes that 60-80 percent of smallholder farmers in much of the developing world are women and that their special needs – from land tenure and credit to participation in local decision-making – need to be taken into consideration if agriculture productivity is to expand.
Third, investing in women’s leadership, especially in political participation at the national and local levels, is critical. Women’s voices need to be heard, not only because they have a right to participate in the processes and decisions that affect their lives, but also because women’s perspectives and experiences would benefit public policy deliberations.
Women also need to be at the table in peacemaking, peace negotiations and work on post-conflict reconstruction, or the peace is less likely to hold. Security Council Resolution 1325 addresses women, peace and security. After almost a decade since its adoption, there has been little progress in recognizing the important role women need to play in this area. As foreign ministers and other leaders gather in London at the end of this month to discuss progress in Afghanistan, the voices of women need to be heard, because Afghan women are critical to their country’s future.
It is encouraging that President Karzai this week named three Afghan women with relevant experience to Cabinet positions, pending the Parliament’s assent. I know that the Afghan women here are watching developments closely, as are all of us.
We must also confront the entrenched attitudes that depress women’s political participation and suppress their voices in the political process. Women cannot compete for public office when they receive death threats or credibly fear for their families’ safety.
Fourth, investing in programs to end violence against women is essential. Violence against women is a global pandemic. Its scope and scale make it simultaneously one of the largest and most entrenched human rights and development issues before us. Violence exacts a great toll on women in Afghanistan, Pakistan and well beyond. Violence cannot be explained away as cultural. It is criminal. Abuses not only destroy the lives of individual girls and women but rob countries and the world of urgently needed talent. I don’t need to tell you that women in regions of conflict are particularly vulnerable.
I traveled to Afghanistan just before the presidential elections there to reaffirm President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s commitment to Afghan women and girls and to hear from them how they were faring. In a discussion late one evening in Kabul in which Deputy Minister of Women Kakar, who is here also, participated, an eloquent young Afghan activist pleaded, “don’t just look at women here as victims, but look at us as the leaders we are.”
Indeed, to visit Afghanistan is to become aware of just how capable and hardworking Afghan women are. I traveled to remote provinces where women were running for provincial councils in numbers that exceeded the quota for women’s seats. They wanted to be part of the local decision-making and to make a difference – to be agents of change – no matter how tough the odds.
The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan addresses security, economic development, social development, good governance and rule of law. It recognizes that women have to be part of the process to rebuild Afghanistan, alongside the men.
A top U.S. priority for development and economic growth is agriculture. Eighty percent of the people in Afghanistan earn their income from agriculture, yet only fifty per cent of the arable land is currently under cultivation. The key to increasing land yield is to increase skilled human capital and boost land productivity. Women are being trained for sustainable employment in farm machinery and in small business based on agriculture. Others are receiving veterinary training critical to livelihoods of families who depend on selling animals. Others are being trained in poultry businesses in villages. Programs like these are having a positive impact. As one Afghan said “It is unbelievable how our family life changed from misery to prosperity.”
In addition to help with agricultural training, Afghan women are receiving access to trade missions and other tools to benefit their businesses and business skills – tools they need to begin a small business, or to take an existing business to the next level of development. In these ways, women are improving their own lives and those of their families.
But agricultural development, business training, and microloans can only advance women’s rights so far, without a concomitant increase in political and judicial representation. That is why we have been supporting local civil society organizations in providing civic education through a coordinated approach of training, capacity building, and support for media programs, as well as training for female police officers, justice officials, civil service capacity building, and political training for female parliamentarians and their staff. We’ve supported the creation of Family Response Units that are staffed primarily by female police officers and that offer a safe place for women to report crime and seek dispute mediation. We’ve funded workshops for male and female police officers on domestic violence. During my trip to Afghanistan this past summer, U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry and I announced a new USD $27 million fund for small flexible rapid-response grants targeted to empower Afghan women-led NGOs at the local level and to build their skills.
Our efforts focus not only on building the capacity of women and mitigating the security challenges that impede their political progress, but also on securing allies who can be influential. For example, we support programs that promote women’s rights by engaging community religious leaders and other local officials who speak out in their Friday services and other venues against violence against women. Mullahs have been instrumental in persuading husbands and fathers of women who have been recruited for midwife training to allow wives and daughters to leave home for the classes. These kinds of investments are creating a better tomorrow for all the people of Afghanistan.
The challenges Afghan women still face, however – in education, in health, in safety and freedom from violence and in reclaiming the rights to political and economic equality guaranteed them in their country’s Constitution – are significant. But perhaps no challenge is greater than to ensure their voices remain heard. That’s what you’re doing here. We are here to listen to their voices and to raise our own voices in support of Afghan woman and others like them who are advancing progress, peace, and justice around the world. In so doing, they will create a better world for all.