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July 2, 09

NEWS / Ambassador Urges Robust Afghan Debate on Women’s Issues

By Stephen Kaufman
Staff Writer

Washington As campaigning for Afghanistans August 20 presidential and provincial elections moves forward, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global womens issues urges a credible, inclusive and secure campaign for all candidates and a vigorous debate on issues of concern to their female constituents.

Clearly, there has to be a will at the top and theres got to be heat at the bottom, Ambassador Melanne Verveer said in Washington June 30. Despite progress in some areas of womens rights since the removal of the Taliban in 2001, other issues such as security remain a paramount challenge for the country.

Violence against women and girls is endemic and much remains to be done, including access to institutions of justice, civic education and prosecution of the crimes, she said. More girls are in school, but the Taliban have eroded some of that progress. Last year alone, they burned or shut down more than 700 schools, and thousands of girls are now without access to formal education.

In addition, health remains a critical issue in Afghanistan, where women suffer from the worlds second-highest maternal mortality rate and have an average life expectancy of less than 50 years. Verveer added that one out of every four children does not live to see their 5th birthday.

Under Taliban rule, women were excluded from public life, including the right to work, move freely and vote. However, the political significance of women is rising, as evidenced by figures released by Afghanistans Independent Election Commission which reported that 38 percent of the 4.5 million newly registered voters are women.

Women are very eager to have the candidates talk about the issues that are of great concern to them, Verveer said. Often these are issues that are never raised. Along with the paramount need for more personal security, Afghan women also seek improvements ranging from greater social and economic participation to the quality of their lives, to their representation and decisionmaking.

Ultimately, their situation will improve to the extent that there is a more robust discussion of those issues, she said.

The ambassador said more than 100 women are running for Afghanistans provincial councils, and two of the 41 presidential candidates on the ballot are women. She said their increased participation is very gratifying, and shows that women want to be part of the solution.

She added that they need the same freedom of movement and protection as male candidates so that they are equally able to make their voices heard and to be protected in the [electoral] process.


The ambassador said the Obama administration has created a $27 million fund for small, flexible, rapid-response grants to provide technical assistance and support for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) led by Afghan women. The NGOs make a difference for all Afghans, she said, offering programs covering economic development, literacy, skills training and health care.

The individual grants, though small, can produce immediate results, she said, and can contribute to the betterment of what is taking place in the local areas and also grow the capacity of the women to make a greater contribution.

Afghanistans women are critical to their countrys progress and stability, Verveer argued, saying no country can prosper if half its people are left behind. Countries that repress women also have a tendency to be backward economically, and are more likely to be failed states.

The country has an impressive cadre of women leaders in areas such as business, government, media, and civil society, yet their potential is not fully tapped.

An investment in women is the single most effective payoff to alleviate poverty and promote general prosperity around the world, and, Verveer said, It is in leaders interest to make these kinds of investments. But whats often missing is the political will to do that.



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