December 7, 2006

December 7, 2006 | Commentary on

Hope for Afghan girls

Anyone who has watched the chilling documentary "Obsession: Radical Islam's War with the West" will recognize where the real front in the war against terrorism lies - the minds of children. 

The movie leaves the viewer outraged and likely deeply depressed, but it is also a call to action. The question it poses is this: What can we do to counter the radical propaganda that teaches 4- and 5-year-old children to pledge to become suicide bombers, that teaches them to hate Jews, hate Americans and hate Infidels. As much as the violence, the haunting image from "Obsession" is of sweet-faced girls with headscarves and big dark eyes, who should be playing with their dolls, but who instead take instruction in how to strap explosives to their small bodies. 

The frontline of this war is the schools, and whatever we can do to counter the effects of such evil, we should. A counter balance is very much needed in Afghanistan and elsewhere where the madrassas spread hatred and radicalism. This means a secular education system that teaches children to read and write, as well as respect for life and for themselves. 

One of the most promising endeavors in this struggle is the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, an initiative announced in April of 2002 by President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It enjoys the patronage of first lady Laura Bush, who traveled with the council to Afghanistan, and is co-chaired by Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Bano Ghazanfar. 

As of Monday, the council became a public-private partnership with Georgetown University, entering a new phase. The partnership will have a new home, built on an existing relationship with the university, which hosts Afghan exchange students and which in 2006 awarded Mr. Karzai an honorary degree. It will now be able to sustain itself after this administration leaves office, and it represents an approach that makes a lot of sense as we need to tap into the resources of the private sector in the effort to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. New members of the council's board include some of the heavyweights of American philanthropy, and companies like Microsoft have also gotten involved.

Many Afghan women have come a long way from their plight under the Taliban regime. Girls and women, who for all intents and purposes were prisoners in their own homes, are now able to get an education and make a living to support themselves and their families. Under the law, women can again be teachers and midwives, as well as lawyers, rug merchants and journalists. Seventy-thousand women have started small businesses. 

Since 2002, the United States has committed $10.3 billion in funding to the work of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, much of it focused on health care and education, which of course does not benefit girls alone. Today, 80 percent of Afghans have access to some level of health care as compared to 7 percent under the Taliban. Six million children are in school, of which 2 million are girls. 

It would be wrong to give the impression, though, that this is not an uphill struggle. Poverty and culture are often heavily against women trying to claim a place in society. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Afghan women lawmakers, part of the mandated 20 percent in the parliament. They not only found that male prejudice against them undermined their effectiveness as politicians, but also that communicating with their constituents is difficult in the extreme, with mountainous areas cut off by snow for a great part of the year, no mail service, no phones, no radio - and certainly no Internet. 

Furthermore, as reported in The Washington Post yesterday, shelters that provide refuge for women and children from abusive husbands and families are highly controversial and often subject to attacks. So are NGOs and legal service organizations that provide legal assistance to women. In rural areas, girls are still sometimes betrothed before they turn 10 years old, and may be killed by their families if they run away from their husband. 

However, if progress is slow, it is all the more reason to be steadfast in our commitment to the Afghan girls and women, who risk their lives to claim their place in society. And education is the foundation on which all future success stories are built. 

We need to focus on what works, and in Afghanistan we have seen what does.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

First appeared in the Washington Times