Most of my weekends are spent doing errands, exercising, watching movies, visiting with friends and catching up on sleep. But two weeks ago, I flew to Kabul to represent the Department of State at the Third Symposium on Afghan Women's Empowerment, sponsored by the government of Afghanistan, and hosted at the Afghan Presidential Palace. It was a homecoming for me, as I served at US Embassy Kabul in 2012-13, working on women and civil society issues. My trip was also part reunion with friends, both Afghan and American, and a way for me to personally take stock of progress made and challenges still unmet.
The challenges for Afghan women are well known - insecurity, lack of access to education and low literacy rates, few employment opportunities and cultural norms inhibiting women's equal role in society. Fewer people are aware of the progress made to date. Today, millions of Afghan girls are in school, the maternal mortality rate has dropped dramatically, and health care is being delivered to many more women and children. There are women Cabinet ministers (four), women parliamentarians (27 percent of the Parliament), women judges (about 10 percent of the judiciary), and women business, NGO and academic leaders.
The statistics tell an important story, but there's nothing like being on the ground. During my short time in Kabul, I was struck by three things.
First, Afghan women are committed to building their own future. This was an Afghan conference, led by First Lady Rula Ghani. The 300 conference participants were from all over country, not just from urban areas--an important fact in a country where progress has been largely uneven. These women had clear views on what issues were facing them, their families and communities, and they clearly wanted to make sure their voices were heard. Whether the discussion was about women and Islam, women's political participation, the role of women in media, economic empowerment, access to health care and education, or promoting peace and security, these women were right there, with ideas, good questions for panelists, and a willingness to take on hard topics. Women said they wanted to be in places where decisions are made, whether that is in upcoming international meetings and negotiations, or in Afghan institutions. These women bring expertise and concrete proposals that can make a difference for the future of their country.
Second, Afghan women see men as necessary partners in their work. This was evident across the board - from President Ghani's strong support, to the involvement of men as speakers, to the discussions of how to engage all sectors of society in these efforts. Women were clear that empowering women isn't just good for women and girls, but good for entire communities that can then work together on solutions to critical issues for the country. President Ghani reaffirmed his administration's commitment to women, noting: "It is my personal commitment and the commitment of the national unity government to activate the presence of Afghan women in all spheres."
Third, investments made by the international community in Afghanistan have made a difference. I am not necessarily talking about funds, although those are important. I am talking about the investment in people and relationships, in developing ways to have meaningful conversations and interactions that show our support and respect for the work Afghans are doing. The international community has been resolute in its support of Afghan women and girls, and we need to keep those relationships going to continue to make progress. Long term commitment from the international community is paramount to continued progress for women and girls.
Afghan women are key to Afghanistan meeting its challenges. In the international community, we need to support them by listening to them and ensuring that they can be full participants in their county's future.