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"Let us never forget our Afghan sisters."

"Women in Afghanistan: Beyond the media portrayal to action"

As Delivered 20 November 2001
Opening Remarks by Angela E.V. King
Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women
at the Panel Discussion sponsored by
Group on Equal Rights for Women

Madam Moderator, Excellencies, Colleagues and Friends.

Today's meeting takes place when, despite many years of concern about the situation of Afghan women, it is only now under conditions of extreme tragedy, political violence and destruction, that the Afghan women's situation is finally grabbing the world's attention.

For the first time outside of the setting of the United Nations and of the international community, there is a groundswell of concern from Parliaments to First Ladies, from Media Stars to NGO groups; all calling for full recognition of Afghan women's rights to the full enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms in a society where in the recent past severe and institutionalized gender discrimination and gender-based violence prevailed.

Our interest today is to ensure that this energy and concern will be harnessed towards convincing negotiators and leaders of Afghan factions alike, of the benefits of including Afghan women as full partners in the decision-making process around the peace table, in humanitarian efforts and in reconstruction of the country.

The United Nations and its family of organizations have had a long interest in Afghanistan. UNICEF set up its first office there 52 years ago. Over the past 20 years of conflict the Security Council has on several occasions considered the issue, and more seriously since the takeover of Kabul in 1996 by the Taliban authorities. The Council's interest in gender issues and the impact of conflict and of policies on women and men has increased steadily with debates in 1997, one specifically on gender issues in April 2000 and even greater interest in the current debates culminating with the Council's resolution 1378 of 14 November last. The climate for this interest is undoubtedly due to the historic resolution 1325 (2000) of 31 October last year. An interest which has translated to questions about Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor and Burundi, to name a few, in addition to Afghanistan. The General Assembly, the ECOSOC, and the Commissions on the Status of Women and Human Rights have also discussed the question of Afghan women on a continuing basis.

The story unfolding in Afghanistan is playing against a fast moving strategic framework planned and coordinated by the United Nations system in three areas: political, humanitarian and reconstruction /development of which my colleague, Noeleen Heyzer, will speak.

The prime goals of the United Nations in Afghanistan at this point are:

    • To stop the fighting so as to deliver humanitarian aid;
    • To stabilize the country; and
    • To ensure that no final decisions or scenarios are concretized without participation of all parties in the negotiations.

Political - At the political level, the Secretary-General has issued statements on the need to bring a rapid and just conclusion to the present stage to allow for humanitarian aid to reach Afghans and for Afghans to settle their country's future. He has appointed his Special Representative, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, assisted by his Special Envoy in Islamabad, Mr. Francesc Vendrell.

On the peace and security side, the SRSG and the Special Envoy over the past three weeks have spoken to leaders of many of the factions including those within the Northern Alliance to encourage them to come to the table and start discussions on the transition to a constitutional future of the country. In his statement to the Security Council on 13 November, the SRSG suggested an approach to include:

A Provisional Council would be convened, probably in (Berlin) Germany next Monday, which would have a transitional administration to prepare a constitution to last for no more than two years.

An Emergency Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal chiefs, would be convened to approve the transitional administration.

Mr. Brahimi has met with various Afghan groups and women NGOs both in Afghanistan, Pakistan, New York and Washington. He has encouraged an NGO conference to discuss issues for input into the Loya Jirga.

It is here that there is concern for women's participation and the commitment of Governments to this cause. The United Nations has strongly encouraged factions to include women in their delegations. Those which do, would have certain stipulations relaxed. The SRSG has pointed out however that it is not the role of the United Nations to select representatives, Afghans must take ownership by selecting their own.

Three Executive Committees, reporting to the Secretary-General on peace and security, humanitarian aid and development/reconstruction, comprising clusters of agencies engaged in related work, meet regularly and have drawn up a preliminary strategic recovery plan which will be discussed with Afghans for the settlement of the country in the immediate future and for the next year or two. It was one of these Committees on Humanitarian Affairs that sent the Inter-Agency Mission on Gender which I headed, to Afghanistan in 1997.

These Committees, on which women also sit, have confirmed that women's participation in the political process is extremely important.

A think tank, the first Integrated Mission Task Force, has been established to advise the SRSG and coordinate and prepare strategies based on inputs from the Executive Committees and the field through the Resident Coordinator. It is headed by a senior director and includes three gender specialists from DAW, WFP and UNICEF.

Also at the United Nations in New York, the Security Council adopted a resolution of 14 November calling for Afghans to establish a transitional administration leading to the formation of a Government which should be broad-based, multi-ethnic and fully representative and should respect the human rights of all Afghan people, regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion.

Other important initiatives have been taken to highlight the necessity of the full involvement of Afghan women in the process by the 10 Women Ambassadors to the United Nations and several senior women at the United Nations including Carol Bellamy, Thoraya Obaid, Gillian Sorensen, Noeleen Heyzer, Elizabeth Lindenmayer and myself in meetings with Mr. Brahimi.

Last week a meeting of 15 Women Foreign Ministers on 12 November, adopted a statement sent by letter to the Secretary-General, on Improving the Human Security Situation of Women in their Societies, which urged that international assistance programmes should include active participation of women in the reconstruction of society, that the potential of women in contributing to peace and reconciliation in conflict and the need to empower women through education and in particular through human rights education, be recognized.

Who are these Afghan women and what was their situation?

In 1977, it is estimated that 15 per cent of all legislators in Afghanistan were women.

Up to the early 1990s women formed 70 per cent of the teachers, 50 per cent of Government workers and 40 per cent of medical doctors.

Women were professors, lawyers and judges. They were journalists, writers and poets. I understand that women helped to draft the 1964 Constitution.

What has their situation become?

We are talking about a country of approximately 22.7 million which, after three years of severe drought, 22 years of war and devastation and five years under the Taliban authorities, has been left as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Estimates indicate that:

    • There are 50,000 widows in Kabul and 500,000 in the country as a whole;
    • Every 15 minutes a woman dies in childbirth (the second highest in the world); *Female literacy is 4.7 per cent;
    • 25 per cent of children die before 5 years of age;
    • 50 per cent of children are undernourished; and
    • 10 people are injured or killed daily by land mines in a country of 8-10 million mines.

Humanitarian and reconstruction priorities worked out by the United Nations system, subject again to Afghan views include:

    • Return of United Nations staff.
              Over 250 staff are poised to return. Several agencies have already returned international staff. Special tribute should go to the hundreds of Afghan staff who stayed in the country and continued to assist returning refugees from Iran, deliver food (over 52 million tonnes), tents, blankets, and medicines and immunized over 1.6 million children from 6-8 November, during the bombing raids.

      In the latest mission of international returnees last week the first person off the plane was a woman staff member.

      OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR and WFP have not only returned staff but are once more employing the Afghan women who were not allowed to work with United Nations agencies for the last five years, with the exception of WFP because of the food aid and particularly the bakeries.

Other priorities for Afghans and particularly for women are:

    • Resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons;
    • Governance;
    • Education;
    • Health; and
    • Employment and capacity-building.

What can we do now?

Governments can ensure that the question of Afghan women's participation is raised at all levels consistently, particularly in the three areas of political processes, humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Donor Governments can insist that gender is mainstreamed as a prerequisite for aid.

The Afghan Support Group and other bodies, including Governments, United Nations agencies and NGOs can also insist on women's participation and devise methods of fully integrating gender into their projects and programmes.

The United Nations can continue to include a gender perspective in all strategic recovery plans and programmes, devise convincing cases for why women will contribute to stabilization and what happens when they do not.

Senior officials in the United Nations and Government must keep pressing in deliberations for representation of women and continue to devise attractive incentives and constructive scenarios for reaching gender equality goals.

The international community and NGOs must support Afghan women's groups and their efforts inside and outside the country to:

Join together in a strong women's caucus with consensus on key issues:

    • Strategize and plan;
    • Agree on representatives/spokespersons to speak and negotiate on their behalf; and
    • Prepare a declaration of priorities. (We will hear of one such example from Jessica shortly concerning the meeting in Brussels in early December.)

NGOs must partner with Governments and international agencies to:

    • Send support;
    • Give generously to agencies involved (UNICEF, UNFPA, UNDP, OCHA) with medical care, capacity-building, shelter, food security, rebuilding schools, hospitals and governance training;
    • Develop lists of gender and human rights specialists who can work in Afghanistan; and
    • Develop lists of Afghan women NGOs.

A final word. Let us never forget our Afghan sisters, women and girls and their right to the basic freedoms that we all enjoy.

Intellectually, we should challenge the view that it is the Afghan way for women to be unseen and unheard. It has not always been so. The women are there, their voices and wishes are there. If we stop pontificating and listen, we will hear them. They wish for their children the same that we wish for ours. Let us think of the new generation. This is also a politically globalized world. How can we help to manage globalization for the benefit of our sisters, their families and communities?

Thank you, Madam Moderator.

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