April 11, 2003

April 11, 2003 | WebMemo on Middle East

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

 

Presented at The Heritage Foundation

by Paula J. Dobriansky

Under Secretary, Global Affairs

April 11, 2003

 

Thank you, Lisa, for that kind introduction. I'd like to thank Becky Norton Dunlop of the Heritage Foundation and Michele Easton of the Claire Booth 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. 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 eighteen months.

 

Let me say at the outset that the broad principles underlying our approach to democratic transitions are truly global in scope. As President 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 Woman'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 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." And 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'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 Cheney, and Dr. 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% 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 UN and other international organizations, like the Red Cross, preposition 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 demining 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. And in January, when I led a high-level delegation to Kabul, the President sent a personal message to President 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. Government (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% 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 3-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 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. Thank you.

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