Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative, on Afghan Women Speak, Eight Years Later, Challenges and Hopes UNIFEM Panel, in the ECOSOC Chamber

Susan E. Rice
United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
U.S. Mission to the United Nations 
New York, NY
March 5, 2009


Good Afternoon, thank you so much for inviting me to participate. It’s an honor to be here.

I’m particularly pleased to be joined by Ambassador Tanin, the Permanent Representative of Afghanistan, and Joanne Sandler of UNIFEM—and above all, to join the extraordinary, courageous women who are doing the hard work, day in and day out, of creating a more hopeful future with and for their Afghan sisters.

We are really here to hear their voices, the voices of the women of Afghanistan, so I will try not to monopolize the dais for too long. But let me offer a few truths that I believe we should all be able to agree are self-evident: that women’s rights are human rights; that human rights are women’s rights; and that the more a society empowers its women, the stronger and more prosperous it will become.

Let me also note that we recognize that the situation of women in Afghanistan is embedded in the situation of the country as a whole. We see that women bear a particular burden of continuing conflict and violence and that if we care about women’s security and women’s rights and needs, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that Afghanistan is on a clear path to a peaceful, stable and democratic future.

I am pleased that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has spoken out firmly, calling for all nations to insist on more and faster progress toward equality for all and an end to all forms of violence against women. The Secretary-General has rightly noted that women’s empowerment is essential to the progress of all nations, developed and developing alike, and we can see the truth of that insight in Afghanistan today.

Indeed, expanding opportunity for Afghan women is not some strange foreign notion.
It’s one that springs directly from the hopes and deeds of Afghanistan’s women—and men. Last fall, the Asia Foundation produced a fascinating survey of Afghan public opinion, based on interviews with more than 6,000 Afghans from all of the country’s 34 provinces, and the results are striking.

The vast majority of people surveyed support the principle of equal rights under law for women and men alike. Almost everyone—95 percent—support education for girls;
85 percent of Afghans support the idea of women holding jobs outside the home; and 77 percent support women holding public office.

We hear them. We hear you. We are inspired by the courage of the Afghan people and we respect your aspirations. The heights that Afghan women have already scaled are tremendous, even if there is still a great way to go and we are determined to do our part to enable you to climb higher still.

Let me touch briefly on five key areas where we all have more to do: education, health care, economic opportunity, justice, and leadership.

Afghan women told the Asia Foundation that their top concerns were education and illiteracy, and the United States shares their concerns.

Despite all the progress that has been made, some 90 percent of Afghan women are still illiterate. To change that, we must come to see education as more than just a right; we must also see it as a critical tool in the struggle to empower women, reduce inequality, and to defeat poverty.

Many more Afghan girls have enrolled in schools since the fall of the Taliban; today, young women and girls make up about 35 percent of Afghanistan’s 6 million students. I am particularly proud that my government’s own USAID trained about 3,000 female school teachers last year and continues to support the American University of Kabul, a third of whose students are women.

But, together, we must do more—build more schools, train and hire more female teachers, teach more girls to read and write, and ensure that all students, teachers, and schools are safe from attacks by the blinkered and the hateful.

Afghan women also need better health care, especially in rural areas and in the realm of reproductive health. Afghan women often risk their own lives to bring others into the world, as Afghanistan reportedly has the second-highest maternal mortality rate on Earth.

In large parts of the country, health care during and after pregnancy simply doesn’t exist. All too often, infants become orphans, and newborns succumb to illnesses that could have been beaten back. This is not just tragic. It is a preventable tragedy.

Poverty also continues to hobble all too many Afghan women. USAID estimates that the annual earnings of the average Afghan man are about $1,200; the average Afghan woman makes just $400.

But this isn’t just about what’s right; it’s also about what is profitable. The simple truth is that societies that take advantage of only half their human talent will be less prosperous than those that let everyone rise as high as their abilities will carry them. As we think of Afghan women at the loom, in the fields, on the farm, and in the office, we must remember that economic development moves faster and farther when women can join in than when they are left outside.

We must also do more to ensure that the new Afghanistan provides justice for all, including the victims of violence against women.

This remains a heartbreaking problem. There is no honor in so-called “honor killings”; there is only cowardice, cruelty, and crime. And it is those who assault women who must be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed—not their victims. In both informal justice systems and formal courts, Afghan women should be able to seek and receive the full measure of justice.

So, too, must they be able to participate fully in the promotion of the rule of law. Afghanistan’s parliament boasts one of the highest percentages of women, but the country now has only one female minister, the Minister of Women’s Affairs. There would be great benefit in having more women in top positions in the judiciary, despite such exceptions as the heads of the juvenile and family courts in Kabul.

Afghan women have a crucial role to play in leading the way toward higher standards of living, better medical care, and a more deeply engaged citizenry.

Women suffered alongside the nation’s men during three decades of war and violence; women are now exercising remarkable leadership across the country in the common project of consolidating peace and security and we need to do what we can to listen to you, to support you at this crucial time.

With the help of USAID, which has trained more than 22,000 female voter-registration officials, more than 4 million Afghan women are registered to vote. We believe in working with all the people of Afghanistan to ensure that women are able to vote—and that women have the opportunity to lead.

Friends, on all these issues, we are merely following the road paved by the Afghan people. Afghanistan’s Constitution is eloquent and clear: “The citizens of Afghanistan, man and woman, have equal rights and duties before the law.”

This is the credo of Afghanistan; it is the basis of our shared commitment to your future and your progress. I’m grateful for the opportunity to join with you and we wish you all the best.

Thank you.


PRN: 2009/041