International Women’s Day 2002

Keynote Address

International Women’s Day

8 March 2002, Kabul, Afghanistan

Chairman Karzai, Ambassador Brahimi, Minister Samar, Mrs. Mary Robinson, Excellencies, Women of Afghanistan, UN Colleagues and Friends,

International Women’s Day is a celebration of women’s courage and leadership. It is the greatest honor and privilege for me to be here in Kabul with you, on such a day. It is historic. Today we celebrate the heroism and courage of Afghan women who risked their lives to run schools for girls, who provided health care for women, who provided home-based work so that families could survive. We celebrate today the men who risked being punished for providing support to women in their families and communities.

A few days ago I learnt what risking one’s life on an everyday basis meant. The women I met said to me, we resisted the Taliban through our work and the secret organizing of women in the community. We had no choice. The alternative was depression and suicidal tendencies. So we preferred to live resisting and creating. This is courage. This is heroism. This is leadership. I would like to acknowledge the women who run Community Forum Services of Habitat, the Widows’ Bakeries of the World Food Programme and others like them and invite them to stand up so that the world can recognize and applaud their courage.

I spent this week listening very carefully to women, to internally displaced families inside and outside of Kabul, and from rural and urban areas. And one message is very clear: the women of Afghanistan know the cost of exclusion, the cost of failed states and economies, the cost of accumulated conflicts. They know what it means to have sons, brothers and husbands who are forced to fight, and daughters who are forced to hide. They know what it means to be displaced, to have one of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality, one of the lowest rates of access to education and health care and total exclusion from public life. They are now the highest stakeholders of peace, stability and development.

International Women’s Day is also a day of hope and of vision for a better life. During the last three days, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA)and UNIFEM with the support of UN agencies -ILO, Habitat, UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNESCO- organized a National Consultation of Women from the provinces and from Kabul. They developed their vision and strategic action framework for the advancement of Afghan women. The vision of these Afghan Women is simple: they want a life freer from hatred, violence and poverty. They want a more prosperous and secure Afghanistan. An Afghanistan where men, women and children can go about their daily life safely. Where boys and girls and men and women can live to their full potential with access to education, health care and decent work. Where women and men can live in stable homes and healthy communities.

Estimated at more than 60% of the population, women want to be key players in the shaping of this new future for their children, their families and their country. Women have already shown how they recreate and hold communities together even in the darkest of times. They are ready to contribute their energy and resources for rebuilding their nation, but they want to be recognized, valued and supported.

The women also made it clear that they have the most to gain from new opportunities and also the most to lose if fragile communities breakdown. If the strategies to improve the status of Afghan women are to succeed, they stress that these strategies need to be formulated within the historical and social contexts of the country and with the participation, ownership and capacity building of Afghan women from a diversity of socio-economic and political backgrounds. They also want special efforts to be made to reach out and engage Afghan men for a better understanding and support for women’s issues. The creation of spaces in which a diversity of voices and realities can be heard, valued and addressed is itself a good development practice. It leads to ownership and long term stability.

I would like to highlight four key priorities that can be acted upon to support women.

The first is security. Security sector reform must consider women’s protection. A professional police force must be trained and equipped to address women’s special security needs. Alternative policing models, including community based policing and police stations for women should be explored. Special protection should be provided in camps and during repatriation. Reintegration, and demobilization are essential. But beneficiaries must not be limited to combatants. The wives, widows and other dependents of ex-fighters must be included explicitly.

Building a security sector that protects women also depends on the rule of law. As a consequence of decades of armed conflict, lawlessness, and oppression, the rule of law in Afghanistan has disintegrated, depriving women of protection under the law. By signing the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, Chairman Karzai demonstrated his support for women’s equal protection under the law. Ensuring women’s rights in Afghanistan’s new constitution, and legal frameworks is an essential starting point and hence the second priority.

The third priority is governance. In rebuilding Afghanistan, women will need to be part of the governance structure. I would like to first congratulate H.E. Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi for including women in the political process, and congratulate H.E. Chairman Karzai for the inclusion of two women Ministers in his government. The presence of Chairman Karzai and Ambassador Brahimi on International Women’s Day embodies the support that the Afghan women have at the highest political level. The challenge now is to ensure that this political support will transform the quality of women’s lives. In concrete terms, it means that both women ministers need political and financial support. We know that a strong Women’s Ministry with clear policies and coherent strategies is vital to making sure that commitments to women are honored. But this alone is not enough. Gender concerns must be incorporated into the National Development Framework, budget allocations and the work of all ministries.

Women’s community organizations must be strengthened and networks fostered. The needs of rural women and women of all ethnic groups must be addressed seriously.

Information must be shared with rural and urban women through radio and other mediums. Only then will the benefits of peace and development reach communities and people outside Kabul as the country heals.

In the immediate post conflict phase, there is a unique window of opportunity to ensure that new institutions are created through a participatory process. There is a window of opportunity for Afghan women to institutionalize mechanisms that will help them to maintain the legitimacy of their claim to reshape their future and to assist in the reconstruction of their country. In the National Women’s Consultation, women have asked for a critical representation in the emergency Loya Jirga. This reflects the recommendation of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, in the area of women’s political participation.

Women have also identified a major problem. Only one to two percent of women in Afghanistan have identity cards (IDs). This means that almost 98% of women are people without formal papers, citizenship and identities. If these IDs are used as criteria for participation, then women and men without IDs will be excluded from opportunities in the new governance structures. This problem must be addressed if women and man are to fully participate in the civil and political life of their country.

The fourth priority is to improve women’s economic security and eradicate poverty, especially for widows, female-headed households and disabled women. More than two decades of war has brought increasing poverty along with death and destruction. This has generated tensions and violence in the home. At the same time the removal of women from the economic sphere by the Taliban meant that many women without male breadwinners were quickly turned into beggars.

The eradication of poverty in Afghanistan will not be possible without involving women fully in reconstruction programs, ensuring their participation in the economy and increasing their access to food, shelter and social services. We need quick impact projects and income generating programs. However, these alone are not enough. We need a strong macro-economic framework, banking systems and employment strategies that ensure both women and men have access to the jobs being created as the economy develops. Women are optimistic about the economic future of their country. They are eager to embrace a modern educational and information system that can provide them with skills and opportunities to re-build their country and participate in a globalizing world.

In closing, I want to stress the United Nations’ and the international community’s commitment to the women of Afghanistan. We stand behind you as partners and friends as you move forward. As the Executive Director of the United Nations Women’s Fund (UNIFEM), I know that this is a long time struggle that must be supported. And we are here to support you in the way you want.

I would like to thank all the donors Italy, UK, the Netherlands, Japan, Germany and others for their support. I would like to thank the NGOs for all their work to improve the situation of Afghan Women. I would like to acknowledge the work of all UN agencies present today. A very special thank you to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the security services unit at UNHCR and all security field offices for creating a safe environment here today. It is the sustained small steps and little pushes from all of us moving in a common direction and pace set by the Afghan women that will create the lasting momentum for change. It is only through friendship, partnership, and strategic and accountable use of resources that together we can create a world that is prosperous and secure for all. Into such a world, I pray, let the 21st Century awake.