Afghanistan First Lady: Afghan Women Have Raised Their Voice against Violence

IMG_9271 IMG_9277 IMG_9285 RulaZalmayFeature

March 31, 2016
Afghanistan’s First Lady Rula Ghani was invited to speak on Afghanistan and its journey to development at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.
The First Lady spoke about the progress and achievements particularly on women’s rights by disputing some of the myths about Afghanistan that she said existed in the West and particularly the Western media.

Mrs. Rula Ghani also contested the myth that the United States has lost the war and failed in Afghanistan. “Wasn’t America’s aim to help rebuild the country and help it on its way to achieving political stability? Wasn’t the peaceful succession from President Karzai to President Ghani the sign of political maturity?” she asked.

On the National Unity Government and its performance, she said it would be inaccurate to say that the government is not working. “Repeated half-truths take a life of their own…and suddenly become conventional wisdom.” She added.
Mrs. Ghani said the Afghan government has made progress on reducing corruption, but counseled caution noting that “it takes time to clean up years of neglect and absence of management. It takes even more time to build up solid foundations on which to build the reforms.”

Her remarks were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, President of Gryphon Partners, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Board of Directors.
The First Lady answered questions by audience on her Office role in helping address some of the pressing needs of specific groups like women and children.
She concluded by saying that people of Afghanistan want to be able to live peacefully in their villages and cities, and have the same aspirations as other people.

(Below is the full remarks delivered by the First Lady)

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Merciful
Distinguished Members of the Audience
I come to you in Peace AsSalam Aleikum

By inviting me to address this select gathering of thoughtful and influential movers and shakers, men and women, the Atlantic Council and its Afghanistan Rising Initiative are honoring me. And I would like to thank Fred Kempe, Jim Cunningham and Zal Khalilzad for their warm welcome. Thank you also to you, members of this audience for taking the time to come and listen to me.
Listening is something I myself do a lot in Afghanistan. When I first decided to fully assume the responsibilities of First Lady some 18 months ago, I was entering unchartered waters. I had no specific agenda but that of serving the people, especially the vulnerable ones. That meant that I had to get to know them better and understand their grievances. Hence the open door policy of my office. In the first six to eight months, groups after groups have come to see me, pouring out their hearts and sharing their concerns. Some came from the provinces, others from Kabul, a few are civil servants, among them of course the four women ministers, others are social activists or entrepreneurs. To this date the flow is constant if somewhat less rushed.

I listen to what my four advisors report to me daily—four enthusiastic, hardworking women, slightly younger than I am, who deeply care for their country, who still remember how beautiful and strong it was forty years ago, who are determined to help rebuild its society, and who strongly believe in the capabilities of the Afghan people.

I also listen to the international community. Some of you here today can vouch for it. From UN agencies, to embassies, to international aid institutions (USAID, DIFID, Australian Aid, Canadian CIDA, Japanese JICA, etc.etc.), to NGOs, and even to individuals (I am thinking for example of Pascale, that French lady who is bent on creating a virtual cultural museum for Afghanistan). I love their dynamism though I sometimes chaff at their bureaucracies…

All this to say, in a roundabout way, that the information I’ll be presenting to you will be first hand, factual, and representative. It might not reflect what you read in journalistic or even in some expert accounts. (I was struck by a comment on the ongoing political debate on terrorism, from Susan Hasler, a former CIA fact checking analyst, who recently wrote: “People make the most incendiary, irresponsible claims as if stating indisputable facts. Hardly anyone will tell you where they got their information. Repetition and volume try to take the place of verification.” I would use word for word her observation to describe the reporting on Afghanistan these days.)
Journalists are so rushed trying to be the first to scoop a story while striving to write it in its most sensational and entertaining version that they hardly have time to check their facts. Repeated half truths take a life of their own, especially on social media, and suddenly become conventional wisdom.

The result today is the existence of several myths that need to be debunked:

The Taliban are winning. Really? Then why is it that we keep hearing about the same 100 meters being lost and regained in Helmand every other week or month? And why is it that their leader cannot claim to be Amir el Muemenin? The fact is that they do not fully control enough territory to be able to make that claim. And by the way, who is the Institute for the Study of War that produces misguiding maps to the contrary?
America has lost the war. What war? America came in to hunt down Osama Ben Laden—which was done. To my knowledge America is not at war with the Afghan people.

America has failed in Afghanistan. Wasn’t America’s aim to help rebuild the country and help it on its way to achieving political stability? Wasn’t the peaceful succession form president Karzai to President Ghani the sign of political maturity?

The electoral process in 2014 was fraudulent. How can you still insist on that when the UN commission carried on three different recounts over two months and was unable to discover the alleged “fraud on an industrial scale?”

The Unity Government is not working. When Angela Merkel took over six months to put together her Unity Government nobody blinked. Why should it be different in the case of Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is falling apart economically. Maybe they mean that the pockets of the previous bureaucratic and political elite are no longer bulging with ill-gotten money. In my book less corruption should be considered progress!
The present Afghan Government is inefficient and disorganized. It takes time to clean up years of neglect and absence of management. It takes even more time to set up solid foundations on which to build reforms. Let us keep an open mind for a year or so. Besides, in their USIP “peacebrief”, Bill Byrd and Khalid Payenda are already reporting that collection of revenue has already increased by 22% during 2015. If anything, this is not a sign of disorganization!

Afghan men are an uncivilized lot. Illiteracy does not mean lack of culture. Afghan traditional society is highly cultured. Of course this is seldom the case for warlords and mercenaries. But isn’t that true in most post conflict situations? And again it takes time to replace the reign of violence with the rule of law. And the government is hard at wok reforming the Justice system.

Afghan women are worse off than before and any peace with the Taliban will be made at their expense/or its alternative women have no say in the peace negotiations. Let’s get the record straight: The number 2 on the High Peace Council is no other than Mrs. Sorabi, former governor of the Bamyan province and no shrinking violet. Another woman is also on the negotiating team: Mrs. Hassina Safi, head of the all-important Afghan Women Network AWN. Women are taking part in the peace process and at the highest level. Besides, President Ghani himself has repeatedly declared in public speeches that the issue of women’s rights is non-negotiable.

I would not be surprised if some of you will want to raise questions regarding several of the precedent points, and I will be glad to engage them during the Q&A session that will follow my speech. Let me though tell you more about a topic close to my heart: the women of Afghanistan.

As I mentioned at the beginning there is a constant stream of women who come to see me. Lately, I have noticed an increasing number of upbeat accounts. Of course we are far from having solved all the problems and challenges and it has been less than a year since the barbaric tragedy of Farkhunda in Kabul , and even less since the savage stoning of Rukhshana in Ghor, to name just a few cases of violence against women. !

But the women of Afghanistan did not take this lying down and have raised their voices against all this violence. One of the results of their efforts has been the creation, with the help of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, of an emergency fund dedicated to the victims of violence that will help cover their expenses especially their legal and medical ones. Another has been the holding of several meetings and conferences with religious scholars as counterparts to discuss what is the place of women in Islam and to clarify any misconception. And believe me, you would be surprised as to how many injunctions in the Holy Quran preach respect for women and equal treatment of women and men!!

One very important development in our country since the new government came to power 18 months ago has been the greater participation of women in public affairs. We now have four women ministers, all four very active and effective; our foreign service now counts three women ambassadors (soon to be four); we almost had our first women judge at the Supreme Court, (by the way do you know that we have over 250 women judges in Afghanistan, whereas some of our neighbors do not even have one!…); many more women have been joining the civil service, some of them in responsible positions such as deputy ministers; the police are aiming at recruiting 5000 women and have already passed the half way mark; the army has identified positions that are exclusively to be filled by women while also declaring some other positions to be open to both women and men; and so on and so on.

In other words, the present government is actively pursuing the integration of women in its decision-making processes. At the cabinet level, a commission for gender policy, led by Vice-President, Sarwar Danesh and attended by representatives of several ministries, has been busy looking into the gender units of all ministries and the gender sensitivity of all official rules and policies.

The ongoing reform of the Justice system is also benefitting women. A special division (diwan) of the Supreme Court is now dedicated to cases of violence against women and children and is headed by one of the Supreme Court Judges. This has ensured special attention and higher speed in resolving those cases. (One such case is that of Farkhunda that is being carefully re-examined) Also, a special Commission of the Supreme Court has been reviewing the cases of every imprisoned woman and, to date, 95 women have been released or pardoned and 42 have seen their sentenced reduced. New regulations regarding harassment at the workplace were issued in September 2015. The criminal code is being amended so that women running away from home are no longer automatically considered criminals and sent to jail. Here again, many more adjustments are still needed but the Justice system is definitely becoming increasingly fair towards women.!

And I could go on and on about the women-friendly policies that are being implemented by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, of Agriculture, of Rural Development and of Labor and Social Affairs, following the guidelines of the official Women Economic Empowerment Plan.
My own team of advisors have also had their share in bringing improvements to the condition of women in Afghanistan. In the Health field, one major accomplishment has been the formation of an Afghan Cancer Association bringing together all existing health cancer specialists under the auspices of the Public Health ministry to set up a unified policy towards the fight against Cancer—with an emphasis on breast and cervical cancer. Similarly, our office has supported a campaign launched by the counter-narcotics Ministry and has helped in establishing a treatment center for addicts with one special hospital dedicated to the treatment of 300 women addicts.!

So, it will not surprise you if I conclude today with a message of hope. The hope that I see on the faces of the women who come to visit with me, the hope that these women are slowly regaining control of their destiny, the hope that the protection afforded to them by the Afghan constitution is gaining momentum, the hope that they can become active participants in their country’s social, economic and political life, the hope that they can dream again for a better future for them and their families.

Nowhere is this message of hope stronger than in the lives of the rising generation.
I see it in Malika who at age 25, with a starting loan of merely Afs1700, found the way to start three small businesses, open two high schools, and buy a piece of land on which she hopes to build a pasta factory.

I see it in her contemporary Shabanah who, acutely aware of the educational aspirations of girls from the provinces, is finding so many ways to provide them with opportunities for learning in Kabul and abroad and who is about to fulfill a dream of opening a boarding secondary and high school for them in the capital.

I see it in another of their contemporary Narges who has founded her own NGO in order to be of help to her community, attending to those in need, and who single-handedly managed to accompany 20 handicapped children to India where she had arranged for their treatment and came back with 17 of them now able to walk.

I see it in Leila, who after several years of taking care of her brother who was addicted to drugs, decided to open a shelter where 40 addicts are attended, and who is running in parallel a small restaurant in order to cover her expenses.

I see it in Aminah, an MBA graduate from AUAF who after several years of helping Kabul University students in the department of economics start their own business is now about to start a venture that covers the whole process of production of wool, threads and carpets in order to create 5,000 jobs to women in Afghan provinces.

If this is not hope then what is!
Thank you