For the last time as first lady, Laura Bush has presided over a meeting of an organization dedicated to promoting women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. During the meeting at the White House, U.S.-Afghan Women's Council participants discussed achievements and challenges in the quest to grow the ranks of businesswomen in a historically male-dominated nation.
Ever since the United States invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, First Lady Laura Bush has taken a special interest in the Afghan people, particularly its women.
For years, the country's former Taliban leaders banned women from formal education and did not tolerate women who stood on their own as business proprietors.
Mrs. Bush said Afghan women have made great strides in recent years, but much remains to be done.
"The women of Afghanistan still need a lot of encouragement. We know that, because of years of lack of education, a lack of health care, of extreme poverty, that women in Afghanistan still face many, many challenges," she said.
The first lady was speaking in a video teleconference between the White House and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In attendance were U.S. and Afghan officials, American business leaders and academics, and Afghan businesswomen who, together, form the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council.
The council seeks to link aspiring Afghan entrepreneurs with U.S. business leaders and professors who can serve as mentors and help the women launch their fledgling businesses. Begun by President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2002, the council has devoted tens of million of dollars to a wide range of educational and training programs in Afghanistan, while also bringing Afghan women to the United States for schooling.
The council heard from a variety of women who now run businesses ranging from fruit packing to soccer ball manufacturing to selling women's lingerie - a first for Afghanistan.
One entrepreneur, Masooda Sultan, was born in Afghanistan, came to the United States as a child, and returned to her native country following the Taliban's ouster from power. Sultan said hurdles remain for Afghan women - in the courts, for instance, she said the testimony of a lone woman cannot be heard without a male relative present.
"It is an example of some of the difficulties in the formal legal system that we still have to get over - they are a bit of a disadvantage. However, I think there are advantages, as well, to being a woman entrepreneur in Afghanistan. There is the element of surprise. When I walk into a room, and it is full of men, they often think I am someone's secretary. And I have gotten many job offers. And then I tell them, 'actually I am in business and if you want to partner up [with me] for something, that is great.," said Sultan.
All participants thanked Mrs. Bush for her efforts on behalf of Afghan women over the last seven years. For her part, the first lady said she intends to continue to advocate for the people of Afghanistan as a private citizen after leaving the White House.
Washington's Georgetown University will manage the council during the transition period to the Obama administration.