Flying over Kabul on her first secret trip to Afghanistan in March 2005, Laura Bush knew what to expect but she was still stunned by the devastation. I was her chief of staff, and we looked down from the helicopters and saw the height of the mountains, mud huts, rubble everywhere, no infrastructure, and not a hint of green. The country had been deforested by the Soviets long before the Taliban caused even further devastation.
It was heartbreaking to see the destruction but it was uplifting to meet Afghans—particularly Afghan women participating in the redevelopment of their country by becoming teachers, starting small businesses, and even planting trees. Laura Bush would make two more secret trips as first lady and participate in more than 60 events supporting Afghan women and children, encouraged by their determination to build a better life. Just last week, she participated in a conference in Dallas where the hard-won progress, the patience, and innovative ideas required to address the challenges that remain in Afghanistan, were among the topics discussed by Afghans and Americans.
Afghan women who survived the Taliban’s brutality and repression now embrace the chance they have to improve their lives. What they fear most is that the international community has lost interest in them. They know that without international presence and support, Afghanistan would be isolated once again and the first victims would be the nation’s most vulnerable citizens—the women and children. They worry that any gains they have made will be sacrificed and wonder what reconciliation means for them.
Countries that marginalize their women are bound to fail. Nowhere was this more evident than in Afghanistan. Thirty years of war decimated every sector of society in the country. Afghan girls were denied an education. Unspeakable, inhumane acts of brutality were waged against Afghan women by the ruthless Taliban. Women were completely isolated from society causing further hardship to an already impoverished nation. Imagine being a widow with children to care for and no means to earn a living because you cannot leave your home without a male escort.
“It would be a mistake to try and advance the course of gender equality if it is seen as foreign and un-Islamic.”
And so the conference, called Building Afghanistan’s Future: Promoting Women’s Freedom and Advancing Their Economic Opportunity, is all that more important. It was presented by the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University in partnership with the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council. The USAWC, which I am a member of, is a public-private partnership established by Presidents Bush and Karzai in 2002 to mobilize resources to empower Afghan women after years of brutal treatment by the Taliban. It is widely recognized as a good example of a government initiative that transitioned successfully from one administration to the next.
At last week’s conference, Afghan women entrepreneurs, university students, business and civil society leaders discussed their progress and concerns. President Hamid Karzai spoke from Kabul about his record on women’s freedoms. He defended statistics of how many women serve in various sectors, such as the parliament (28 percent of which is female); teachers (28 percent); professors in universities (15 percent); and media (40 percent). He reported that he recently met with 30 Afghan youth organizations and that 25-30 percent of the participants were women. They presented him, he said, with ideas about their future and the future of their country. Women were actively participating in the Peace Council deliberations and acknowledged that “Afghan people will not allow that we diminish or reduce gains that women have made,” he said.
But not everyone was convinced. An Afghan attendee who runs a textile factory in Kabul later told me “I don’t believe it. We heard that before,” she said. “I am worried”.
Afghan women say international pressure is necessary to maintain and further the progress they have made. “We are tired of fighting,” said Dr. Rahela Kaveer, founder and director of the Afghan Women Empowerment Organization, a program that empowers women in rural areas through education and agricultural training.
Kaveer took a big risk early in her life when her country was still under Taliban control. She left her home and traveled to another province to help women deal with a collapsed health-care system and taught them basic nutrition and hygiene skills. “Twice my name was on a list to be killed”, she said. “Friends warned me and I was able to escape before they came to get me”.
Kaveer is a 2010 graduate of Dr. Terry Neese’s Peace Through Business program—a partner with the USAWC that educates and empowers women in developing countries. After this training, Kaveer returned to Afghanistan to expand her network and help more women become self-sufficient.
“Afghanistan is my home,” she said. “When you help Afghanistan, you help people like me. We work hard, we have families and we want a better life for our children.”
Her story reminds us that the world was largely ignorant to the widespread suffering of Afghanistan—especially its women and children.
Then came the 9/11 attacks. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” said former President George W. Bush in his opening remarks at the conference. “It is in the interest of the United States to empower women in Afghanistan… liberating Afghanistan was about securing our country [and about] advancing freedom for the sake of peace... Women will lead the freedom movement.”
When she delivered the presidential radio address in November 2001, first lady Laura Bush drew worldwide attention to the plight of Afghan women. “Everyone looked at Afghanistan and they were shocked,” Mrs. Bush said. Her words struck a chord with American women who wanted to help and would ask her “what can I do?”
“Protecting women’s rights is seen as a favor to women” said Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, and a member of the USAWC since 2009. “Women are critical to the stabilization and progress of Afghanistan,” she told the audience and “the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council is a great illustration of how we work in the U.S. by involving all sectors to help”. She appealed to her fellow council members to “increase the ranks and expand the work.”
When I planned Laura Bush’s first secret trip to Afghanistan in March 2005, I organized it in conjunction with the annual trip made by the USAWC—knowing many necessary military assets would already be in place and Mrs. Bush could slip in to a schedule that would allow her to see council projects and meet the women and children who were benefitting from its programs.
Mrs. Bush visited with the first class of graduates of the Women Teacher’s Training Institute that she helped found; she announced the U.S. commitment to establishing the American University of Afghanistan, the institution that now has students participating by video link to last week’s conference; she helped plant trees on Kabul University’s grounds, and she met with women entrepreneurs who had been organized through the Afghan Women’s Business Association—a program developed by Mina Sherzoy—an Afghan-born woman who escaped to California in 1979 after the Soviet invasion and who returned to help her fellow Afghans after the fall of the Taliban.
Sherzoy, now a manager at Deloitte Consulting in Kabul and founder of the Afghanistan Worldwide Shopping Online Mall, participated in last week’s conference and pleaded with the audience to stay engaged. “We don’t want to be a charity case,” she says. “Please be assured your commitment is working for Afghan women.”
She has a new vision of developing rural entrepreneurial centers in 100 villages across Afghanistan. Her concept respects the cultural realities. “When you appeal to the men and help the whole family, you get everyone’s blessing”, she said. “The minute they know you are helping the whole family and bringing food to the table—they will protect you with their lives.”
World Bank President Robert Zoellick emphasized this respect for cultural practices in the rural communities was essential. He told the audience the bank’s National Solidarity Program has provided modest grants for projects selected by community development councils. The program has reached 26,000 communities and is a great example of how to pull together economic empowerment with political participation for both men and women. Together they make the decisions. “It has to begin with Afghan ownership”, he said, and he now plans to establish the Rural Enterprise Development Program across Afghanistan, but cautions “it would be a mistake to try and advance the course of gender equality if it is seen as foreign and un-Islamic.”
Fatima Akbari, a widow who lost her husband under the Taliban, is now the owner of a furniture manufacturing business in Kabul and Daikundi provinces. She told conference attendees that she employs 90 people. Seventy-three of them are women. When she hires a new woman, she brings their husband to the shop to demonstrate the use of the technology she uses that makes it easier for the women to be carpenters. “It has a psychological impact on the family and brings more harmony when we know each other. I had to convince the men,” she said.
With the profits from her furniture company, she launched an NGO that teaches women how to tailor, weave, and make handicrafts, and also educates women and men about human rights. Her NGO has trained over 5,000 men and women across Afghanistan.
She has also inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs. Shahla Akbari, Fatima’s 23-year-old daughter, is the owner of a shoe manufacturing company in Kabul, one of the only non-imported shoe brands in Afghanistan. She started her business with a $2,000 loan from her mother. Shahla employs 20 people, 14 of them women, in two workshops. In just one year she repaid the loan to her mother and has also helped establish a shoemaking business for others—three men who requested her assistance.
Both Fatima and Shahla are graduates of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program, which provides business and management training for women entrepreneurs. 10,000 Women has partnered with the USAWC and the American University of Afghanistan to administer the thriving program in Afghanistan.
USAWC corporate partners articulated that the durability of the government’s presence will be important to expecting them and others in the global community to stay engaged.
One of the newest USAWC corporate partners, Kate Spade New York, is committed to reviving the cashmere industry in Afghanistan. With U.S. government assistance, they gained access to on the ground partners. “This business partnership is not profitable at the moment”, said Sydney Price, senior VP at Kate Spade, “but we are committed to reviving the industry and reviving women’s lives.”
The members of the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council believe it’s not in the interest of the United States to watch women’s rights be abused. We believe our lives and our children’s lives will be better off if other people lived in peace and prosperity too. We believe an effective way to support Afghanistan is to help women thrive and we are committed to encouraging, empowering, and educating women. We believe this lays a foundation for lasting peace and we believe a peace attained by compromising the rights of half of the population will not last.
“Women’s freedoms are still fragile,” said Laura Bush as she urged attendees to be patient. Jeff Richardson, vice president at the Abbott Fund, a USAWC partner, saw the “hope of Afghanistan in this conference” and echoed her call. “Change is a process”, he said, “not an event.”
Anita McBride served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009. She is currently Executive in Residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, School of Public Affairs, American University.