March 10, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Girl Power Advances: New Deal for Afghan and Iraqi Women

If you trust the report released last week by Amnesty International on "Violence against Women," there is unrelentingly bleak news for women all over the world. "Violence against women is a cancer eating away at the core of every society, in every country of the world," said Irene Kahn, Secretary General of Amnesty International, as the organization unveiled its "Stop Violence Against Women Campaign" on March 5. Indeed, judging by the report, women's lives across the world may be worse now than ever. Allegedly 1 billion of us have been victims of abuse. That's one out of every three women alive today.

Obviously, women often do suffer hardships, disease and violence, in the developing world in particular, but there is much good news as well. Only, good news does not make the headlines or top of the evening broadcasts like murder and violence.

Let's look at what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite mainly negative press coverage, important progress is being made for women in those two countries. Following the military ouster of Afghanistan's insanely oppressive Taliban government in October 2001, the Bush administration made the improvement of Afghan women's a priority.

The same is now happening in Iraq, where after a year of liberation from Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women are starting to become engaged in rebuilding their country. "There is a lot to take pride in and a lot that is noteworthy in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where women have played a pivotal role," says Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobrianski.

In Afghanistan, 23 percent of the delegates in the Loya Jurga consultative council are women, and the "U.S.-Afghan Women's Council" is training women to set up production of clothing, training them in journalism and crucially training mid-wives to bring down the country's atrocious infant mortality rate.

As for Iraq, the speaker at the State Department on International Women's Day on Monday, March 8, was Iraq's only female member of the provisional government, Minister for Public Works, Nesreen Berwari. "Before April, 9, 2003, we were not allowed to dream," she said. Today by contrast, Iraqi women can organize themselves.

Iraq's new Transitional Administrative Law, or interim constitution, which coincidentally was signed on March 8, speaks of democracy, liberty, democracy and individual rights, including those of women. It sets a goal of 25 percent participation in the Iraqi parliament, whenever Iraq gets that far.

Iraq actually has a well-educated female workforce already, due in part to a dearth of young men, a generation of whom were decimated in the Iran-Iraq war. Interestingly, Ms. Berwari told me, "The most difficult part of my job has nothing to do with my gender or my qualifications, but with the lack of services that existed under the Saddam regime, the total lack of investment in services, water sewers, sanitation."

She is admirably upbeat and undaunted by the overwhelming job of rebuilding infrastructure and bringing services to the 70 percent of Iraq's 25 million people who live in municipalities under her jurisdiction. As for the security situation, she says that we are getting the bad news on the micro level, when we ought to be looking at the good news on the macro level. "Tens of thousands of children are going to school every day and being taught by thousands of teachers. Would that happen if their parents were afraid for their security?"

What we are seeing here is a different set of women's issues coming to the fore, not just the promotion of abortion or strange new definitions of "gender," issues that dominate the feminist agenda of the left. Women's issues can also be about teaching girls to read and write, and training women to take part in the political life of their countries. They represent a huge untapped potential, particularly in Muslim countries. "Today the torture chambers are gone," said Ms. Berwari. Instead, Iraq is seeing women's self-help centers spring up.

The larger point is, however, that this is not just about women. It is not about "women vs. men" or "Venus vs. Mars." It's not just about the great female "me, me, me," as we have become tiresomely accustomed to here in the West. The point is that in today's world, no country can progress and reach its true potential without the participation the entire population, male and female. When girls are educated, when women enter the workforce, living standards rise overall. And when they are allowed to vote and hold public office, democracy for everyone can thrive.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times