Speech by Uri Rosenthal at a conference on Empowering Women in Afghanistan: Stability through Rural Development

Speech by Uri Rosenthal, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, at a conference on ‘Empowering Women in Afghanistan: Stability through Rural Development’, The Hague, 7 September 2011.

The Dutch Role in Afghanistan

Minister Kakar, Ambassador Verveer, Ambassador Hartog Levin, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

‘Your country is now embarking on a process to create credible and accountable institutions in which all Afghans are represented. These are decisions for Afghan men and women to make. The role of the United Nations is to assist and encourage this process. But, I would like to take this opportunity to say to all Afghans: there cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women.’

These words were spoken by the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to the Afghan Women’s Summit for Democracy in Brussels, in December 2001.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Afghanistan has come a long way. We should remember that at the time it was a devastated country, the ultimate example of a failed state. It was the poorest country in the world, with hardly any access to education and extremely high maternal and infant mortality rates. Under the Taliban, women’s rights were non-existent.

Today, in 2011, women can once more be seen in daily life in Afghanistan. Girls are going to school, women are setting up businesses. One of the most remarkable examples is Zarghona Walizada, who owns Afghanistan’s largest transport company. Her company, Tac Taz, employs several hundred people, has its headquarters in Kabul and several branch offices throughout the country. Zarghona Walizada set up Tac Taz all by herself, in spite of threats from her competition, and despite attacks on the trucks of her company by insurgents and criminals – attacks that make cargo transportation one of the most dangerous businesses in Afghanistan. In this extremely tough environment, Zarghona Walizada has not only shown great courage – she has also proved that an Afghan woman can do better than her male competitors.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Although the position of women in Afghanistan has greatly improved, they still need to catch up.

That is what today’s conference is about: how to consolidate and improve the access to the rights and freedom that Afghan women have gained so far. The question is how we can help them claim their right to play a part in promoting security, freedom and prosperity for themselves and for their country?

Women’s rights and opportunities are not just nice to have. As my American counterpart Hillary Clinton said on the tenth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, they are a global security imperative. Women represent 50% of human capital. It is in every country’s own interest to make sure that women are actively involved in society and the economy, and in political decision-making. They must be part of the power structures – that is what empowerment is about.

So it is of the utmost importance to address the vital issue of women’s empowerment in Afghanistan. I am keen to share with you the efforts being made by the Dutch government in this field. As you will see, it is a theme that cuts across the Netherlands’ broader role in Afghanistan.

Our efforts in Afghanistan are in line with the three pillars of Dutch foreign policy: security, freedom and prosperity, economic growth. In today’s world, these issues are closely interconnected. Violations of individual freedom sooner or later lead to unrest and instability. Security and freedom are fundamental to economic growth. By contrast, economic growth in the private sector helps foster stability.

Ownership by the Afghan government, the local authorities and the people has been the focus of Dutch efforts in Afghanistan ever since our earliest involvement in 2001. Afghan ownership is key to making processes of stabilisation and reform effective and lasting. It is the leitmotif in all our activities.

More particularly, when we talk about women’s empowerment in Afghanistan, it should be based on a demand-driven assessment of the needs and concerns of Afghan women themselves.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In 2014 Afghanistan will stand on its own feet. Together with our NATO and EUPOL partners, we are training the Afghan men and women who will shoulder this responsibility. Afghanistan currently employs 1,200 female police officers. Its Ministry of the Interior has set itself the target of training 1,000 female police officers each year. Through our police training mission, we are contributing to achieve this target. At the Bamiyan police training centre, for instance, both male and female police officers will be trained in the future. Special facilities for women will make this a unique centre of expertise.

We should not underestimate the difficulties these women are facing. Besides the obvious hazards of the job itself, rumours are being spread about their supposedly ‘inappropriate behaviour’. Some, afraid of being stigmatised, eventually give up a police career or are forced to give up by their families. Fortunately, others find the necessary courage to continue.

Security is also about the rule of law. So we will be joining with the Afghan authorities and our international partners to strengthen the rule-of-law chain in the broader sense, from police and prosecutors to lawyers and judges.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Improving women’s access to the police and the justice system in Afghanistan starts with raising awareness about women’s rights and opportunities. Special attention will be given to confidence building at community level, for example through radio programmes. This was one of the main recommendations of the women’s civil society groups in Kunduz, in talks with our embassy. Improving women’s access to justice is not only about empowering women – it’s also about educating men.

The next step is to help women to actually claim their rights and opportunities. For example by supporting, through EUPOL, the Family Response Units of the Afghan National Police. These units provide a first point of contact with specially trained staff, where women and children who are victims of domestic violence or abuse can file a complaint. Sadly, such crimes are still all too common. The Family Response Units also offer mediation services, and can refer victims to female lawyers or women’s shelters.

Now, to ensure the continued protection of women’s newly obtained rights and interests, women must take part in political decision-making. Empowerment is about power.

Improving political participation by Afghan women at local, national and international level remains one of our key targets. At last year’s international conference on Afghanistan in London, for instance, Arzo Qanih was given the chance to speak about the future of her country – a first for an Afghan woman. I have heard that it was very impressive, indeed.

At the national level, too, much has already been achieved. Under the Afghan Constitution, 25% of the 249 seats in parliament are reserved for women. The 2010 parliamentary elections have seen an increase in female candidates. Afghan women’s organisations and NGOs have asked the Netherlands for our continued support to help them acquire positions of genuine leverage in the political process. For example, they have asked us to support their plea that women’s shelters be managed by NGOs, by raising this with the Afghan authorities and our counterparts. Their lobbying has worked.

It’s also about the economy, about economic empowerment. The Afghan people need jobs, incomes and prospects of a better future if they are to consolidate their new-found freedom. Through the National Solidarity Programme, which was created by the Afghan government in 2003, communities organise themselves, and prepare and implement Community Development Plans. It allows men and women alike to set their own priorities. For example, building roads and bridges has changed the quality of life in many communities across Afghanistan. Roads and bridges are indispensible to rural development and trade.

Afghanistan has come a long way, but we should not paint too rosy a picture. The progress achieved so far, especially in the field of women’s rights and opportunities, is not yet irreversible.

We need to pay close attention to the current process of peace and reconciliation. Finding a political solution is crucial if conflict resolution is to be lasting. Here too, Afghan ownership is key. It should be an Afghan-led process with the international community playing a supporting role. In diplomatic contacts with Afghan officials I always stress this point. I also stress that the principles set out in the Afghan Constitution should be respected. The process should not jeopardise all that has been achieved. The rights of minorities and women should not be compromised. The Afghan Constitution guarantees equal rights for women. This fits in with Security Council Resolution 1325, including ‘increased representation of women at all decision-making levels […] for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict’. In this way, it is up to the Afghan government and the Afghan people to find their own balance between progressive goals and traditional values. It is their responsibility. That, too, is ownership.

As Afghanistan’s international partners we should point out how much progress has already been made. It is our task to help consolidate Afghanistan’s achievements and offer assistance in taking the next steps. And we should repeat again and again that full participation of Afghan women in each of these fields is crucial to further progress.

There are positive signs. Women’s organisations are working together to make themselves heard. Female parliamentarians are courageously stepping up for women’s interests.  Moderate community leaders and clerics are discussing women’s rights and opportunities, and more women are joining the armed forces and police. They are the agents of change, the role models who set examples for others – men and women alike. They deserve our strong support. Their voices must be heard: in their communities, in Kabul and at the upcoming Bonn II Conference in December this year. Again, they represent 50% of Afghanistan’s human capital. It is in Afghanistan’s own interest to ensure their active involvement and leverage in its social and economic development, and political power structures.

As the well-known Afghan human rights defender and Geuzenpenning medallist Sima Samar once said ‘Women’s rights and human rights will not be real unless there is enough security and law enforcement in the country. At the same time, real security is not possible unless women’s rights and human rights are respected and promoted so they become a reality’.

As my American counterpart Hillary Clinton said, ‘Let’s not talk about victims, but about future leaders.’

The women of Afghanistan will continue to find the Netherlands on their side.

Thank you.

Verantwoordelijk ministerie

De Rijksoverheid. Voor Nederland.