Afghanistan

Inderfurth Remarks on Rights of Women and Girls in Afghanistan

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"Promoting human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls, is one of our highest priorities in Afghanistan today," Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl Inderfurth said in remarks to the New York Council on Foreign Relations January 27.

"We recognize and respect the traditional and Islamic nature of society in Afghanistan, as we do elsewhere," Inderfurth said. "Nevertheless, to quote the First Lady's presentation at the White House last December, abuses of anyone's fundamental freedoms 'are not customs. They are not religious practices. They are human rights violations.'"

Inderfurth said that in private discussions, the United States continues to press all Afghan factions, especially the Taliban and their supporters, to respect the rights of women and girls. ... Moreover, when we talk to the Pakistanis -- who we believe have considerable influence on the Taliban -- we press the issue of human rights for Afghan women at the highest level, up to and including President Clinton."

Publicly, the U.S. has tried hard to keep the spotlight on this issue, he said, including remarks by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Clinton. In addition, the State Department's human rights report on Afghanistan, due out at the end of this month, will provide an updated and detailed account of the problem, he said.

"But we must do more than just draw attention to the plight of Afghan women and girls. We must also promote programs on the ground that are designed to better their lives," he said.

Inderfurth noted some changes, including reports of some improvement in informal educational opportunities for girls; local women are being allowed to work in home schooling, bakeries and food distribution, and a modest improvement in the conditions of medical treatment for females, at least in Kabul. "But there is much more work to be done," he said.

The United States, he noted, contributed over $70 million in humanitarian aid during FY 1999 to help meet Afghanistan's increasing needs, with special attention to women's issues.

Other U.S. concerns in Afghanistan, Inderfurth said, include the Taliban's continued harboring of terrorists, including Usama bin Ladin, its production of illicit opium and the ongoing civil war in that country.

Following is the text of Inderfurth's remarks, as prepared for delivery:

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KARL F. INDERFURTH
ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR SOUTH ASIAN AFFAIRS

REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY TO THE COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS ON "GENDER AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY: THE CASE OF AFGHANISTAN"

NEW YORK CITY, JANUARY 27, 2000

Introduction: Afghan Women's Vignettes

Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to be here this morning to discuss this important and difficult subject with you.

Let me begin with a couple of brief vignettes reported recently about Afghanistan. On December 6, Belquis Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee woman and activist in St. Louis under our special asylum program, was call upon to introduce President Clinton at the White House ceremony marking International Human Rights Day. Belquis spoke of her personal memories of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, and the three months that followed when all hospital services for women were brutally "suspended." "I can never forget," she said, "the case of the woman suffering a mine injury who died at the gates of the hospital, while her husband and the medical staff begged the Taliban guards to let her be treated."

A second vignette from just a month ago comes from Trudy Rubin, the insightful Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and columnist who has spent a good amount of time on this assignment. "When I asked a group of illiterate war-widows if they cared whether their daughters went to school," she reports, "they all started shouting simultaneously." One woman cried: 'We hoped our daughters would be better off than us. Without education, it is as if I am blind.' And yet, as we all know, Taliban policies have sharply restricted this fundamental and universal human right of education for many of Afghanistan's women and girls.

Similarly oppressive restrictions infringe upon their other rights. For example: the right to earn a living, or simply to step outside the home without fear of being accosted by an enforcer from the "Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice." Given this tragic situation, it is clear why promoting human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls, is one of our highest priorities in Afghanistan today.

The U.S. Approach: Respect for Culture, But Oppose Abuses

We approach this issue with a clear understanding and appreciation of legitimate cultural and religious differences. We recognize and respect the traditional and Islamic nature of society in Afghanistan, as we do elsewhere. Nevertheless, to quote the First Lady's presentation at the White House last December, abuses of anyone's fundamental freedoms "are not customs. They are not religious practices. They are human rights violations."

What are we doing to oppose these abuses? Our efforts begin with diplomacy both public and private. In private discussions, we continue to press all Afghan factions, especially the Taliban and their supporters, to respect the rights of women and girls. When we talk to the Taliban, we press this point. I have personally done this on several occasions, in Kabul, in Islamabad, in Washington, and here in New York. Moreover, when we talk to the Pakistanis -- who we believe have considerable influence on the Taliban -- we press the issue of human rights for Afghan women at the highest level, up to and including President Clinton.

In public settings, we have tried hard to keep the spotlight on this issue. Secretary Albright denounced Taliban gender practices early in her term of office, during a visit to an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar. President Clinton has spoken out, most recently in his Human Rights Day remarks at the White House last month. The State Department's human rights report on Afghanistan, due out at the end of this month, will provide an updated and detailed account of the problem.

But we must do more than just draw attention to the plight of Afghan women and girls. We must also promote programs on the ground that are designed to better their lives.

As the New York Times pointed out in an article last Sunday, the situation is not entirely hopeless. There are reports of some improvement in informal educational opportunities for girls -- even if our best information suggests that this remains very spotty, and that even home schooling for girls remains officially illegal. We understand that the Taliban are honoring their informal agreements with various NGO's to allow local women to work in home schooling, bakeries, and food distribution. Also somewhat encouraging is a modest improvement in the conditions of medical treatment for females, at least in Kabul. Most recently, just three weeks ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it has been able to begin medical training programs for both men and women in Afghanistan, with special emphasis on programs for midwives and expectant mothers.

All of these improvements are the direct result of firm advocacy by humanitarian organizations active inside Afghanistan. Indeed, it is primarily the UN and the international NGO community that can claim credit for whatever progress has been made lately. We support their efforts; but it is they, not we, who will have the best chance to press this agenda for the foreseeable future, simply because of their practical and unofficial role in the long-suffering country.

Other Concerns in Afghanistan: Terrorism, Narcotics, and Civil War

The treatment of women and girls is not, of course, the only concern we have about Afghanistan today. Terrorism, narcotics, and continuing civil war also demand attention. Of late, terrorism has been our highest immediate priority because it truly poses a clear and present danger to innocent American and other lives. It is because they continue to harbor terrorists, including Usama Bin Laden, that the Taliban were put under UN sanctions last November. Those sanctions will be lifted if the Taliban comply with the relevant UN Security Council Resolution (1267).

Narcotics trafficking is another pressing concern. Since the Taliban took over most of the country, Afghanistan has become the world's largest producer of illicit opium. We are cooperating with UN agencies to turn this abysmal record around. We are also working to get concrete counter-narcotics cooperation in the Six Plus Two group, which includes all of Afghanistan's neighbors plus Russia and the U.S.

Underlying many of Afghanistan's problems, including a great deal of the suffering experienced by its women, is the ongoing civil war in that country. We continue in our efforts to find a way out of this terrible tragedy, and I wish I could be more optimistic about it. There are a few recent developments to report. One is the appointment of a new head of the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell. Another is the Rome process, a series of consultations including Afghan expatriates aimed at convening an emergency Loya Jirga, or grand council, that would promote national reconciliation. A third and potentially positive development is a Pakistani initiative to work with Iran on a peaceful solution to Afghanistan's internal strife. But precisely because such a solution still seems a long way off, these diplomatic efforts are no substitute for the need to deep addressing Afghanistan's urgent humanitarian problems.

U.S. Contributions

Let me then return to that subject. Our humanitarian aid has expanded to help meet the country's increasing needs, with special attention to women's issues. Our FY 1999 total rose to over $70 million (out of around $200 million in worldwide official assistance Afghanistan). Over half the U.S. contribution ($44 million) was in the form of wheat or flour distributed through UN programs to all needy Afghans. Of the cash component, a significant amount (over $3 million) was for educational and other programs specifically targeted for women and girls, mainly refugees in Pakistan.

Here are some specific examples from last year: We gave Save the Children about three-quarters of a million dollars for the Haripur Women's health and Education project in Northwest Frontier Province, which concentrates on non-formal schooling and basic health care. We gave the International Rescue Committee a comparable amount for female education, teacher training, and health care projects in other refugee camps around Peshawar, and an additional $350,000 for training and income-generation programs with indigenous NGO's. We gave the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children a large grant for a Gender Technical Advisor to work with other NGO's in that area. And we contributed around half a million dollars for Church World Service and International Medical Corps programs in primary health care provision and training, working both in Pakistan and in Nangarhar Province inside Afghanistan.

This year's effort is likely to be of comparable size and focus. New this year is an expansion of our resettlement program for persecuted Afghans, referred by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and administered by our Refugee Bureau at State. We expect to welcome at least 500 Afghan women and their families under this program, a five-fold increase over last year.

Conclusion: Working with the NGO Community

We encourage NGO's and others active on behalf of Afghan women to meet with us and explore the best approaches to this problem, and to make whatever contributions they can. We recognize the value of advocacy groups and women's empowerment projects, from The Feminist Majority in this country to Mary MacMakin's PARSA schools and workshops for women inside Afghanistan, and many others as well. Our door at the State Department is open for discussions about what more we could be doing. In late November, for example, my bureau hosted Samantha Reynolds of UNDP and Habitat for Humanity for an informal dinner and a full day of meetings to discuss her work with Afghan women, to which we provide significant funding. In that spirit, I welcome your comments and questions today.

Let me conclude on this note: Our efforts are making some difference. Women are no longer turned away from most hospitals in Kabul just because they are women. And at least some girls are able to get some of the education that they and their mothers so strongly desire. But there is much more work to be done. What small improvements we see in Afghanistan must be expanded. We urge the Taliban to allow women and girls to fulfill their most basic human needs: of education, healthcare, and employment. And we urge the international community to keep the plight of Afghan women and girls high on its agenda -- as we will -- until these things are done.

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(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)