VOA'S Spozhmai Maiwandi interviews Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, about women’s issues in Afghanistan
Thank you, Madam Paula Dobriansky, for giving us this time. You were in Afghanistan last week, actually this time today. You went there on January 8 and 9, heading a delegation of U.S. officials and business leaders. Could you please, first of all, tell us what was the purpose of that trip?
The fundamental purpose of the trip was to co-chair the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. And what that is is this was established by President Bush and President Karzai in fact last year. The Council met last year in Washington and now, just recently, in Kabul.
The purpose of the Council is to bring together government officials as well as private sector, members of the private sector, business types, others, foundation heads, who could come together both on the Afghan and the American side to try to deal with and set forth support for projects that will benefit women.
In particular, I'll give you an example. The U.S.-Afghan Women's Council talked about the importance of providing support to the Women's Resource Centers.
The two other co-chairs of the Council, separate from myself, happens to be the head of the Women's Ministry, who is Minister Surabi, and then also the Foreign Minister, who is Minister Abdullah.
Could you please tell us how did those talks go?
The talks were very successful. We had a full morning of discussions, and we talked about issues relevant to education. In fact, education loomed as one of the most important areas for women: the importance of having a primary education and a higher education, being able to read, to write, to have skills.
We also talked about the importance of micro-finance and business development. In addition, we also talked about the important process, which is underway in Afghanistan now; and that is the writing of the constitution as well as the issue of the Human Rights Commission. In fact, a formal presentation was made by Dr. Samar.
But you know what was so successful about this? We had not only our delegation but, on the Afghan side, there was a very significant turnout.
In addition to my co-chairs, Minister Surabi and Minister Abdullah, there were some 10 ministers from other ministries who were present from reconstruction, from the education ministries.
There were also NGO's and U.N. representatives. So, there was a very full and lively discussion about what steps we could take together to help women in Afghanistan.
And I bet you do know that it is not a very easy task to do. Could you please tell us what are the real issues that are confronting the women's rights and the issue of education in Afghanistan?
Well, I think first, as I mentioned, the issue of education is really one of the most important ones. The Afghan women in fact spoke quite passionately about it. To them, education can equate with opportunities. But we start with the younger girls.
And what we witnessed just this last year, on March 21, were many young girls were able to return to school. As we know, during the time of the Taliban, young girls, women, were not able to get an education.
So, this is one of the most crucial areas, not only for young girls but also for those who are older, who want to go back to school, who want to be able to acquire skills and to better themselves, also to earn an income.
And also, what happens here has ramifications for the future growth of Afghanistan. Because women are pivotal players in society and can contribute significantly to the growth, the economic growth, of Afghanistan.
So, it is in the interest of all. But education loomed large. I would say that one of the challenges in the time ahead is being able to get the kinds of resources, being able to have the kind of access.
We've seen a major sea change, I would say, from the time of the Taliban, but much remains to be done.
And what are some of the problems? We hear a lot that the society in general is quite conservative, especially in the rural areas. Do you consider that a hindrance toward these goals?
I think that we have to be patient. I think that Afghanistan is certainly undergoing a transition. Afghanistan has been devastated.
And we often forget that. The years of conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion, and then right up to the time where the Taliban came in.
One of the things that we certainly noticed, even physically, just graphically, in visiting Kabul and especially western Kabul, is the devastation.
When you look at not only Kabul but let's talk about the surrounding areas, it will take some time for attitudes to change and for some, you know, views and perspectives to settle.
But, having said that, even though some changes I think will still be forthcoming, I have to say that I was truly struck by the extent to which, from the time of the Taliban, the society was so fluid, so active.
Women in all of our settings spoke their minds. Even while we were waiting outside the Widows' Bakery, there were some women who came up and actively engaged us in dialogue about their views and about the importance of education. So, I'm very optimistic. I think that even though there are certain changes that I think need to evolve, I think we can expect that, from where Afghanistan was and where it will be going.
And there are also some perceptions, and I would say even allegations, that the U.S. is trying to enforce its culture, its way of life, on women of Afghanistan and generally on Afghanistan. What would you say to such people?
No. On the contrary. In fact, on our trip, we tried to underscore three fundamental points. First, that our relationship is very important to us with Afghanistan.
Secondly, that we also have a long-term commitment to the rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan. And thirdly, and significantly, and related to your question, that we want to be guided by and support the Afghan people as they move forward.
Their future must be their own. They must be the ones to indicate what their specific desires and needs are. Our role is to provide advice, support, share our experiences, but, in the end, Afghans must decide for themselves what future path they want to pursue.
And could you share with us some of your general observations and impressions that you got during this trip?
Well, my observations were one that were really permeated by expressions of hope. I was very struck by the courage, the determination, the steadfastness of the Afghan people, men, women, children.
I was so struck by that, in every not only conversation that we had, not only the dialogue of the Council but the various site visits that we had to the Women's Resource Center, to one of the hospitals, to also the Widows' Bakery.
There were many occasions in which we had an opportunity to engage people -- and not just officially but also on the streets. And I was just struck by the kind of hope, the kind of determination that people have, that they want to move forward. Let me give you one example.
We were able to visit the Women's Resource Center. And there we in fact had an opportunity to converse with a number of young girls. And they were in the process of taking literacy classes.
And we asked them, what do you want to be? And many of them, they raised their hands proudly. One said, I want to be a doctor. Another said, I want to be a journalist. And then you had several who want to be teachers.
That to me was a real expression of really a determination that they know that they want to have an education, they want to move forward, they want to advance themselves and contribute not only to their own advancement but to the advancement of Afghan society.
I would finally say that I was just very heartened, in the midst of very physical and graphic devastation, that we witnessed that, nevertheless, this kind of spirit and determination really was very prevalent.
And Madam Under Secretary, you spoke of hope. And, for sure, hope exists for a bright future for Afghan women, but at the same time these days, not only among Afghan women but Afghans in general, even at the official level, there is some level of concern, too, that if and when the United States gets engaged in Iraq, maybe the level of commitment to Afghanistan will change. What would you say to that?
Well, in fact, during the trip we were able to reaffirm in many occasions our long-term commitment to Afghanistan. In fact, there were some Afghans who raised the issue of Iraq or international situations in general. And we indicated quite clearly that we are in for the long haul. President Bush is very committed to the reconstruction and the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
In fact, last December the President signed the Freedom Support Act. And the Freedom Support Act is a multi-year, in fact, support mechanism, from 2003 to 2006. So, we in fact conveyed this message that even despite other situations that may confront the United States, that the future of Afghanistan matters, our relationship matters, and we see ourselves being committed to Afghanistan's future.
Thank you very much, Madam Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky.