Women and the Transition to Democracy: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Beyond

Report Middle East

Women and the Transition to Democracy: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Beyond

June 20, 2003 24 min read
The Paula J. Dobriansky
Policy Analyst

I'd like to thank Becky Norton Dunlop of The Heritage Foundation and Michelle Easton of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute for inviting me to speak with you today about the U.S. government's approach to the role women can play in transitions to democracy.

I am delighted to recognize someone whom many of you already know: Charlie Ponticelli [former Director of Lectures and Seminars at the Heritage Foundation]. Charlie will play a crucial role on this vital issue, as the new Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues, working directly with me. Both of us look forward to continuing a very productive relationship with you and other key groups who have important contributions to make to our policy dialogue. I'd like to also recognize Cindi Williams from the White House Office of Public Liaison, who has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of women.

The main examples of democratic transitions that I intend to discuss with you today, as the title of my talk suggests, are both very timely ones, though they are also quite different: Iraq and Afghanistan. I know these two countries have been on the minds of many Americans during the past 18 months.

Let me say at the outset that the broad principles underlying our approach to democratic transitions are truly global in scope. As President George W. Bush said in his first State of the Union Address, "America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance."

These values are a vital part of our interaction with the whole world--and their scope includes both women and men, always and everywhere. Indeed, as the President delivered those words, one of his invited guests of honor in the chamber was the first Minister of Women's Affairs in liberated Afghanistan, Dr. Sima Samar.

Now think about the significance of placing respect for women on this list. So often, a subset of issues is labeled as "women's issues" when, at root, all issues are women's issues--from the fight against terrorism and religious extremism that will make women and their families safer, to health, to education, to financial opportunity. Ensuring women's rights benefits not only individuals and their families; it also strengthens democracy, bolsters prosperity, enhances stability, and encourages tolerance. It thereby helps every society realize its full potential, which is an overarching goal of our own national security strategy.

And women's rights are at the core of building a civil, law-abiding society, a prerequisite for true democracies. I think Secretary of State Colin Powell summed it up best when he said, on International Women's Day last year, that "women's issues affect not only women; they have profound implications for all humankind." That helps explain why this month's State Department magazine features a signed message from the Secretary whose title tells it all: "Women's Issues Are Integral to Our Foreign Policy."

That leads me directly to some comments about Iraq. As President Bush said just a few weeks ago, we have fought this war both "to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, and to free the Iraqi people from the clutches of a brutal dictator"--and that includes Iraqi women and children as well as men. We are committed to help the Iraqi people transition rapidly to a sovereign, representative form of government that respects human rights, rejects terrorism, and maintains Iraq's territorial integrity without threatening its neighbors. We are determined to achieve our objectives, and we have clearly made significant progress.

In introducing a group from the organization Women for a Free Iraq a month ago, I said that we are respectful of nations that differ from our own. At the same time, we believe that democracy and human rights are not just for some people, but for all people. They are universal principles that every man, woman, and child is entitled to. We want to help Iraqis take back their country after decades of tyranny and build foundations of a democratic society, a society based on Iraqi traditions and culture and founded on the universal principles of freedom and liberty.

The women of Iraq have a critical role to play in the future revival of their society. They bring skills and knowledge that will be vital to restoring Iraq to its rightful place in the region and in the world. However, the U.S. will not dictate what the future Iraqi government will look like. Those decisions are for the Iraqi people to make.

Until just now, Saddam Hussein's regime brutalized all Iraqis. Men died in the hundreds of thousands, in wars of aggression and internal repression, leaving women and children without husbands or fathers. Men, women, and children were indiscriminately slaughtered in gas and other deliberate attacks on civilian populations. People were tortured in front of their families, leaving all scarred for life.

That is why we see scenes of jubilation in Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk as the statues of Saddam are toppled by the people of Iraq. Now they can build a future in which all Iraqis--men and women--can participate in full.

The Office of International Women's Issues has put together a fact sheet outlining the horrible fate of Iraqi women under Saddam. You will see that Saddam's regime has used beheading, rape, torture, and legalized murder of women as a way to punish women and their families, in Iraq and abroad, for speaking out simply about the truth and the horrors of his regime. Saddam's military, almost incredibly, actually had an official assignment called "al-I'tida' `ala sharf al-nisa'"--violation of women's honor.

Those women who have nevertheless chosen to speak out have often been forced into exile. And even in the midst of this war, President Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and Dr. Condoleezza Rice have met some of these free Iraqi women to discuss the situation in Iraq and to develop ideas to insure the full participation of Iraqi women in their country's reconstruction.

I was moved by these women. They told chilling stories of the atrocities they and their families suffered in Saddam's Iraq. These are the sorts of crimes that this dying regime has continued to commit right to its bitter end. And yet, despite the terrors that these women recounted, they exhibited the resolve and courage to reclaim their country.

Allow me to quote one of these brave women, Maha Al-Attar, in full. "We are willing to work together and also with the U.S. to establish democracy," she declared. "It's not going to be easy. Nobody has said it's going to be easy. But we don't have any other option but to proceed toward democracy. There is no other option." And, she continued, "there have been many instances in the world where people have started from scratch with democracy. Germany is one. Japan is one. The U.S. was very influential in helping those countries in establishing democracy, and I hope it will do the same for us."

The fact is that there is a precedent for such a transformation inside Iraq itself. Here is a recent observation by Isobel Coleman, director of the Council on Foreign Relations project on U.S. Foreign Policy and Women: "In northern Iraq," she writes,

3.6 million Kurds have carved out an economic and political system under the protection of the U.S. and British no-fly zone. Kurdish women travel there freely, hold high-level economic and political positions and have been critical to the region's revival. Several Kurdish women serve as judges, and two regional government ministers are women. Hotels and restaurants there have flourished, patronized in large part by Iranians who cross the border to enjoy the freer, no-veil-required environment for women.

These examples of women's participation in the democratic political and economic structures of northern Iraq indicate what is possible for women--and for men--in the rest of the country, including other Iraqi men and women who fled Saddam's terror over the past three decades. More will return to rebuild their country, prepared to take on leadership roles.

President Bush put it very succinctly this week. Squelching any rumors that our victorious coalition might seek to "impose" a new leader on Iraq, the President simply said: "Forget it.... From day one, we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country. And that's precisely what is going to happen."

As events in Iraq unfold, we will continue our efforts to work with Iraqi women and men to ensure their participation in a free and open Iraq. And there is plenty of work to be done, in every area where we typically support women's issues: from human rights, to political participation, to economic opportunity, to education.

Unfortunately, some people still believe that totalitarian regimes like Saddam's offer "progress" on women's rights under a dictator's thumb. To be sure, most Iraqi women have not been secluded at home, as were women under the rule of the Taliban and some other backward regimes. Yet, in reality, Iraqi women have not fared well at all by world standards, whether in education, employment, or health care, under the brutal Ba'ath regime. Nor, for that matter, of course, have Iraqi men.

Iraq was once a seat of great learning and social progress. But now, according to UNESCO figures, only one-quarter of Iraqi women can read and write; even the World Bank's figure, while substantially higher, is nevertheless under half. Iraqi men have fared somewhat better in this respect, but still only a bare majority are literate. Just one out of every five Iraqi women has found paid employment of any kind.

The children of Iraq have also suffered greatly from Saddam's misrule. Many of their fathers have been needlessly sacrificed in lawless military adventures, and their entire families have been hostage to the most vicious suppression of all political or religious freedom. Child mortality rates have been staggeringly high--as high as 13 percent by one recently published estimate--all because of the perverted priorities of Saddam. He built palaces and poison factories while hospitals and other health services languished for lack of attention. We can now help the Iraqi people to change this inhuman agenda, one that was foisted upon them by an utterly unscrupulous ruling clique.

In contrast, our own abiding concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people has been a key feature of our policy during this crisis. We have supported contingency planning for the humanitarian needs of innocent civilians trapped by or fleeing from Saddam's forces. We have helped the U.N. and other international organizations, like the Red Cross, pre-position staff, food, tents, and emergency supplies. We have helped Iraq's neighbors prepare for a possible influx of refugees.

Even as we were compelled to engage in combat against Saddam's ruthless dictatorship, we have conducted de-mining and other operations so that humanitarian assistance can reach the people of Iraq. And we have taken extraordinary measures to minimize the effects of war on Iraqi civilians and infrastructure. Where unavoidable damage or human tragedy has occurred, we will do everything humanly possible to heal the wounded and to get essential facilities and services back into operation as quickly as these emergency circumstances allow.

Today, we are already well into the planning and initial implementation of Iraq's reconstruction. And I don't mean just bridges and buildings; I also mean the human needs of education and employment, for Iraqi girls and women as well as boys and men. For example, we will support Iraqi efforts to prepare school materials that will help teach the country's youth about tolerance and individual freedoms rather than the belligerent, totalitarian content that has been standard in Saddam's textbooks for an entire generation.

On the economic front, we are also thinking about how to help Iraqi women overcome the legacy of dependence on government rations and handouts. To cite just one instance, we hope to invite a representative group of aspiring Iraqi businesswomen to an NGO-sponsored Arab Women's Summit planned for Morocco this coming June. And the Iraqi women I have met lately have shown their gratitude for our support. As one of them, Esra Naama, put it to the press a few weeks ago, "We want to thank President Bush and the troops that are there in the desert.... Thank you for helping my people and for going to liberate my country."

Iraq is obviously a huge effort, but it should not obscure and will not obstruct the work we are doing in other places.

When it comes to women's rights, in particular, I can cite the very different example of Afghanistan. Our commitment to that cause, and to broad humanitarian and reconstruction assistance there, will not change, despite other events around the world. President Bush has said we are committed to Afghanistan for the long term. In January, when I led a high-level delegation to Kabul, the President sent a personal message to President Hamid Karzai and to the Afghan people reaffirming that commitment.

In Afghanistan--and elsewhere around the globe--in addition to providing assistance on a national level, we support and encourage public-private partnerships in a range of humanitarian and economic development ventures. The U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, inaugurated by Presidents Bush and Karzai at their very first meeting in January 2002, promotes private-public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions. The council has mobilized the private sector in the U.S. to support Afghan women, including a program of computer education and leadership training for women working in government ministries.

The delegation I took to Kabul this past January, composed of both government officials and private-sector representatives, was in fact for a meeting of this U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, the first to be held inside Afghanistan. I was gratified that President Bush asked his adviser, Karen Hughes, to join our delegation, indicating the special importance he continues to attach to this issue.

During the visit, I announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would contribute $2.5 million in support of the creation of women's resource centers in 14 provinces of Afghanistan, and that the council would issue $1 million in grants to support educational programs at these centers. The council's work is just one of the ways that the U.S. government continues to support the full participation of women in the reconstruction of Afghanistan--and not just in Kabul, but everywhere in the country.

The situation has changed considerably in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. As you know, one mark of the Taliban was their refusal to allow girls to go to school. This year, the new Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that over 5 million children are in school, and 42 percent of these students are girls. This means over 2 million schoolgirls--compared to the previous, pre-Taliban all-time Afghan record of just 350,000. USAID is providing over $60 million in a three-year package to help Afghan education, including school construction, textbook production, and teacher training.

Our work in Afghanistan is far from finished, but we can take some pride in what we have already accomplished there. I am also pleased that many NGOs have commented on the great value of our Afghan effort. As a statement issued on March 14 by the International Crisis Group put it,

The creation of a Ministry of Women's Affairs, significant donor commitment and the return of women to universities, schools and government offices heralded a new day for women in Afghanistan.... There is little reason to doubt the commitment of the Karzai administration and its international partners to address discrimination against women and improve their access to civic life.

Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, we are working in other countries around the world to encourage the participation of women in transitions to a more democratic way of life. Let me conclude with one brief example of this cooperative approach to encouraging women's political and economic participation.

Last December, Secretary Powell announced the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). In fact, he delivered his speech right here at The Heritage Foundation. The initiative will provide a framework and funding for the U.S. to work together with governments and people in the Arab world to expand economic, political, and educational opportunities for all. An important focus of the initiative is equality of opportunity for women, whether in education or employment, civil society or political participation.

The projects are still in the early stages. The general idea, however, is to extend to a new part of the world, with appropriate allowances for local cultures and conditions, some of the work that we continue to pursue successfully in various Asian, African, and Latin American countries. We intend to do this through a genuine partnership with governments, people, and non-government organizations, including the private sector. Partnership will be the hallmark of our approach--and the best guarantee of achieving real results on the ground that meet the needs of people and their governments.

This will not happen overnight, nor can the United States bear sole responsibility for this global transition to democracy. But doing our share is an effort well worth our dedication and our perseverance. Ultimately, it promises to fulfill the President's vision, which I know you and most Americans share, of a world in which humanity's most basic values are respected so that free individuals--men and women alike--can live in free societies that no longer threaten each other.

As we work to find realistic, practical measures that will help translate this bold vision into reality, we will welcome your suggestions and your support.

Q & A

MICHELLE EASTON: All of us, all Americans, have been watching the war on TV. I wanted to ask you about Iraq. What are our priorities right now? What do they need? How is the situation in Iraq different from Afghanistan?

DR. DOBRIANSKY: In discussions that we have had with a number of Iraqi women--those in exile, others who have resettled here in the United States--they have indicated that one of their number-one priorities, which affects not only women but men, the citizenry at large, is the importance of human rights and the protection of the rights of all Iraqi citizens. So as one of our goals, we really want to see a structure that is established and institutions that are established, laws that are put into place, that protect the rights of all Iraqi citizens, and in particular those of women.

Second, women have spoken out about the importance of political participation. Naturally, with the kind of political ferment that we will see before us, women want to be part of that process and must be part of that process. They have a pivotal and crucial role to play. Women have an expertise to bring to the table. They're part of society, and they have ideas to bring to the discussions about how Iraq moves forward. So we want to be supportive to ensure that Iraqi women are in fact integral to the political processes that unfold.

The third area is economic development, which will also be very crucial for Iraq. One concern here is how to ensure that women are afforded opportunities to develop their own businesses, to develop their own enterprises, and toward that end, we want to work with them.

I also will put in the mix, as I mentioned very strongly in my remarks, the importance of education and how education is a crucial underpinning, in fact, to all. Women want to see themselves advance; they want to be able to have skills which they can develop, and you can do that through education.

Every single priority that I've mentioned to you affects all in Iraq. In fact, when the Women for Free Iraq, for example, came and visited the White House and were here in Washington for a series of meetings, they were here also in tandem with a number of groups giving their views with regard to Iraq, and this was a combination of men and women. What was striking to me, it was a very integrated approach in support of these priorities.

The second part of your question was the difference here. I would say that, just looking at the issue specifically of women, we're talking about a marked difference because, as we know, in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, women were not even permitted to go out of the house unless they were accompanied. They were not able to undertake an education. They were prohibited from working. So there were so many different levels in which the scale and the scope of fundamental rights were literally prevented.

In the case of Iraq, women, as I suggested, have been part of society; but the question is, toward what end, and under what context? Under the context of a dictator. So, for those women who had been integrated into the work force, those women who had been part of political processes, these were not representative of a realization of their full potential, to use the words of our national security strategy. What we would like to see, and what I know they would like to see, is that ability to come forward, to be able to realize their full potential in these various areas.

BECKY NORTON DUNLOP: What are some of the activities--you mentioned education and government--that the Afghanistan women are able to engage in now that they weren't able to engage in, and how are your efforts able to encourage and enhance their lives in those areas?

DR. DOBRIANSKY: As we focus on other areas, one of the messages that we really want to have continued, as sent by President Bush and certainly underscored by our delegation that visited Afghanistan, is that Afghanistan matters, and we are committed for the long haul in Afghanistan, and our programs are geared to help Afghanistan move forward.

In terms of women, I want to mention several specific projects, if I may. The Afghan women have set forth a number of key areas that are crucial to them. Education is the number-one area because women have been deprived of being able to go forward and to get an education. We're talking about not only young girls in this case. We're talking about women who may have been in the midst of their education and were then barred from it during the time of the Taliban. They want to go back. They want to better themselves. They want to be active participants in Afghan society.

So, toward that end, we did announce the construction of these resource centers in 14 provinces. I mentioned that we have a $1 million grant out there for educational projects. These projects are also in four different areas: for those who want to look at the area of human rights and pursue work in that area, for those who want to develop businesses, for those who want to work in the area of improving the health care system in Afghanistan and to meet the needs of women.

There are so many areas, but we are working quite specifically on education, and also in the area of developing microfinance programs.

We have given resources to a number of NGOs that in turn have provided seed money to Afghan women who in turn have used small amounts of money to create their own businesses and to further their own businesses. This small amount of money goes a long way. A simple purchase of a sewing machine can really do wonders in terms of the multiplier effect on your output.

The other area in which women have been very involved, and in which we're encouraging them, is human rights. Afghanistan right now is in the midst of discussing its constitution and the establishment of a rule of law structure, a judiciary. Dr. Sima Samar, who was the first head of the Afghan Women's Affairs Ministry, is the head of the Human Rights Commission. We are working closely with these commissions, with the Human Rights Commission, the Constitutional Commission, as well as the Judicial Commission, in assisting them as they move forward with their work.

One of our bureaus at the State Department, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, hosted a conference here with the U.S. Institute of Peace specifically to try to bring together members of various commissions from Afghanistan to sit down with U.S. counterparts and counterparts from a number of countries so that they could get a comparative approach as relevant to judicial processes, for example. In other words, we are aggressively moving forward, and we are moving forward for the long haul in this area.

UNIDENTIFIED GUEST: You had mentioned the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, and I wondered if you could speak a little bit about the activities that they're initiating and what they're doing specifically.

DR. DOBRIANSKY: When the council met in Afghanistan, that was our second meeting. The council first met in Washington, then in Afghanistan, and we're looking to another meeting here in the United States, and it will go back and forth.

As I indicated, the purpose of the council is to tap into, in particular, the kind of overwhelming private support that has been manifested throughout the United States, and there have been many who have stepped forward to try to provide assistance and to channel the assistance in a way that is the most helpful and the most constructive.

One of the members of the council assisted us with a program in which we sponsored some 14 young Afghan women representing different ministries. They came here to the United States, and the council set up in a number of locations, in Texas and in California, a series of meetings with other interlocutors to learn, for example, about computers, to learn about management skills and management training. The idea was that when they returned to their respective ministries, they could apply that knowledge that they benefited from during this tour here back to their respective positions.

In addition, when the council met, we were very gratified by the fact that not only did the three co-chairs come--and the co-chairs happen to be myself, the Minister of Women's Affairs, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs--but there were 10 ministers from other ministries who came to the table. Why was that important, and why is that relevant to the work of the council? It was very relevant because some of our council members have provided monies and support specifically for the resource centers. The resource centers provide a forum in which young girls, for example, can come and undertake literacy courses. We have set that up through the private support in the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council.

In addition, there was one private contributor who really wanted to target the area of microfinance and to provide a type of fellowship but, having started from scratch, needed advice and expertise on how to do it. Let me give you one last example.

Through the arrangement of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, we are having next week a DVC, a digital videoconference, which will comprise a mentoring program. The Afghan Women's Ministry said their young women can really benefit from having direct conversations with CEOs, with journalists, with others in this country who have been successful. We will have a small group of private representatives representing different walks of life and who are success stories to talk about what it took to get from one place to another place. What types of best practices worked? How do you balance difficult issues in terms of family, educational needs, as well as employment needs?

So that's another initiative undertaken by the council. These are a few of the examples.

JULIANA PILON: Juliana Pilon with the Institute of World Politics. I was wondering if Ali Jalali's appointment as Minister of the Interior for Afghanistan has been a factor in your programming. He was head of VOA Central Asia and a student of mine--I should say, excellent, a superb gentleman.

What he understood very well was the importance of using radio, particularly given the high rate of illiteracy among women. I was wondering if radio education is being considered. At VOA, he was in charge of the Afghan radio project, which actually delivered thousands and thousands of radios, and I just wondered if that's a factor. You hadn't mentioned it, but I suspect it probably is.

DR. DOBRIANSKY: It is. Radio is crucial because radio is one of the most important means of disseminating information throughout Afghanistan. Absolutely. And, certainly, a priority of President Karzai has been to ensure that efforts are not just concentrated in Kabul, but, even more critically, outside of Kabul into the outlying areas.

This is crucial for all Afghans, but also especially for women. That's why, in addition to constructing these resource centers in Kabul, it's crucial that they are developed in the outlying areas, because you have many women who want to be engaged, and there are challenges. It depends upon what area or what sector we are talking about.

You mentioned Minister Jalali. We certainly welcome him. He has been very engaged. One of the areas that he has been most engaged in is the issue of counternarcotics issues, which is part of his mandate, but certainly he deals with a broad set of issues as Minister of the Interior.

But radio is an important medium. It is one that we have used, and it's one that we will continue to use.

We also have sought to support, through private support and through the council's work, the efforts and initiatives of Afghan women, and a number of them have come forward with their ideas as relevant to radio programs and magazines. You have some of the first women's magazines that have been published, and in which they take great pride. Those are also ways and means of disseminating information. So we are actively pursuing and supporting those initiatives.

CHRISTY HINES : Christy Hines with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. I had a question about Afghanistan as well.

You mentioned that you're working closely with the Commission on Human Rights, the Judicial Commission, and I understand the Constitutional Commission isn't appointed yet, but they're working on a draft. Is the United States going to have an opportunity to weigh in on a draft constitution, and will there be any guarantees for religious freedom as well as other human rights?

DR. DOBRIANSKY: Absolutely. Our position, right from the start, is that we want to work with the Afghan people in ensuring that all rights of all Afghans are protected. That's why I mentioned this effort that's afoot, because it is a very crucial one. It is one that brings the constitutional group together with the judicial group, with the Human Rights Commission. They are all integrated.

The very nature of their work will be important for the future of Afghanistan. We are working closely with them. We have provided our advice and our expertise. At the same time, it is also very important for them to step back, to look at what advice we have put on the table, what advice others have put on the table.

They have to weigh and balance some decisions for themselves, but that does not mean at the expense of a lack of protection of religious freedom or other fundamental human rights. That is an objective that we want to go forward together on, and President Karzai has indicated that it is a goal and an objective that he has and that we do share.

Paula J. Dobriansky is Under Secretary for Global Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. These remarks were delivered at the Heritage Foundation to the Conservative Women's Network, co-hosted by Becky Norton Dunlop, Vice President for External Relations at The Heritage Foundation, and Michelle Easton, President of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute.


The Paula J. Dobriansky

Policy Analyst