Trudy Rubin: Afghan women wait and hope

03/04/2013 5:32 PM

03/04/2013 5:32 PM

Georgetown University inaugurated a new Institute for Women, Peace and Security to research the role of women in mitigating global conflicts.

The institute was first announced by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made promotion of women’s rights a signature part of her tenure. Clinton funded aid programs to train women leaders in developing countries for government, civil society and peace negotiations. Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who will head the Georgetown institute – and ran Clinton’s office for global women’s issues – clearly hopes to build on that legacy in her new role.

The inaugural ceremony showcased the role many brave women are already playing in fighting violence in developing countries. It also revealed why the Clinton legacy may be shaped by what happens to women in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, it was impossible not to be moved by the quiet presence of Zin Mar Aung, who served 11 years (of a 28-year sentence) in a tiny jail cell for handing out student pamphlets in support of Burmese opposition leader and Nobel winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung now trains women in political activism in hopes they can gain a role in politics and in peace talks with rebel minorities.

And it was hard to fathom the steely courage of Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who confronted head-on the endemic murders of women in her country – known as “femicide” – that reflect a culture of machismo degraded by decades of violent war.

But when Afghan activist Nargis Nehan, the founder of a nongovernmental organization pushing for peace and democracy, took the stage, I couldn’t help remembering Clinton’s pledge in July that “the United States will continue to stand strongly by the women of Afghanistan.”

This is a pledge I wonder how and whether the United States will keep.

Since the Taliban’s fall, the life span of Afghan women has soared, maternal mortality has dropped, and 3 million girls have attended school, up from nearly zero. Women can work and go to college, and in major cities venture out in head scarves, not the all-enveloping burqa.

But Nehan was worried about what will happen after U.S. troops exit the country in 2014.

“What is (feared),” she said, “is that a peace settlement will happen that will actually … threaten all the achievements we have had with the support of the international community. That’s the threat we see for ourselves.”

Nehan was referring to nascent peace feelers between the Afghan government’s Higher Peace Committee and the Taliban, and also to on-again, off-again efforts by the Obama administration to start talks with the Taliban.

While Afghan women are granted 25 percent of parliamentary seats and played a prominent role in last year’s Tokyo donors’ conference, their representation in the Higher Peace Committee is minimal. And Afghan President Hamid Karzai is wobbly on women’s rights.

So Afghan women wonder whether the United States will help them preserve their gains.

In an interview, Verveer said frankly, “To me, Afghanistan is the primary laboratory” for the institute’s work.

She said Afghan women tell her, “We have made more progress in 10 years than in the past 50 years.” But these women also worry that when U.S. or Afghan officials sit “with the enemy, women won’t be present, or that deals will be made without their participation. One thing that every Afghan woman I speak to says is, ‘Don’t push us back.’

“They also say they can’t believe the international community and the United States will allow that to happen. On the one hand, they fear; on the other, they hope.”

So what can concerned Americans do to help Afghan women continue to progress? Nehan stressed that they should stop thinking of these women as victims.

“We have demonstrated our leadership capacity,” she insisted. So offering further training to proven women leaders will help them advance their cause. “We need a long-term commitment for education and support from the international community,” she insisted. “Without that, it will be very difficult to sustain our gains.”

In my trips to Afghanistan, women told me that international donors must insist that education and health care for women also benefit men, because it produces healthier babies and children. The three inaugural speakers said part of any campaign for educating women must involve educating men.

Finally, Western donors can stick to their redlines, laid down at the Tokyo conference, that any future aid to whichever Afghan government holds power will depend on continuing gains for women. Whether we stick to those redlines will determine whether Clinton’s promises to Afghan women hold true.

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