“Voices of the future – Afghanistan after 2014”. 4 April 2013. Opening remarks at Afghan Embassy seminar in Oslo from Minister of Defense Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen.
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Your excellences, ladies and gentlemen, dear participants,
It is a great honor for me to be invited. Let me first of all thank the Afghan Embassy for hosting this seminar. My particular thanks go to Ambassador Manizha Bakhtari. As one of the few appointed female ambassador of The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, you also represent a significant “Voice of the Future”.
Even though this seminar lies in the future business, as minister of defense I find it timely reminding us of the near past.
The numbers of troops having served in Afghanistan over the past decade do all have a share in this conference. Young women and men in uniform have provided security alongside their Afghan colleagues.
They have stood up to defend the rights and safety of the hard-pressed people of Afghanistan. Some have paid the ultimate price. Turning to the future we should all bear this in mind.
The subject of this seminar is close to my heart. It calls on us to listen to the voices of the future – through the eyes and hopes of Afghan women.
“Voices of the Future” refers to the hopes and expectations we all share for Afghanistan. These are expectations encompassing Norway as part of the international community as well as the expectations we have to the Afghan authorities. These go hand in hand. In partnership we will walk the challenging road beyond 2014.
The future is fragile, and the robustness of our partnership will continue to be tested. Not only from groups associated with the Taliban-regime, but also within the partnership itself.
A lasting partnership requires a strong and committed Afghan leadership. It requires an Afghan government turning its back to corruption and any misuse of power. We need elected Afghan politicians that stand up for the cause of their people who for too long have suffered. This is all about earning the trust of your people.
Among these are “voices” calling for a change, eager to see a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. Voices comprised of educated young men and women increasingly more informed and connected through social media, an early sign of a true civil society which can enhance the credibility and legitimacy of our joint efforts.
Through the many visits I have made to Afghanistan, I have met with many representing voices of the future, and in particular the women. For me these meetings are essential. As a politician and as a fellow-sister I consider it my obligation.
I would like to take this opportunity sharing some of their thoughts and my reflections.
Allow me first to offer a brief account of the broader picture.
The empowering of women is the key
This year it is 100 years since Norwegian women gained the right to vote. It paved the way for gender equality in all spheres of our society. Today we know that high female participation in the workforce has had a decisive effect on our national economy.
My point is that gender equality is not only right doing in Norway. In conflict ridden countries such as Afghanistan it is even more relevant. It is my belief that in empowering the women lies the very key to many issues Afghanistan today is struggling with.
Hence this has and will continue to be at the center of our efforts in Afghanistan. Major developments have taken place since toppling of the Taliban regime.
Let me remind you of the following:
- From 2001 to 2013, the number of girls in school has gone from less than 50 000 to almost 2.5 million. Today Afghan schools consist of 30 % girls.
- Under the Taliban, there were approximately 35 000 telephones working in all Afghanistan. Today there are more than 18 million cell phone users. About 90 % of the population lives in areas with cell-phone coverage.
Truly, statistics can offer a broad and clarifying picture. It certainly allows us to grasp the remarkable progress which has taken place in Afghanistan over the past ten years.
Behind the statistics there are boys and girls whose lives have improved, even if only ever so slightly. It is in meetings with these individuals that you get a glimpse of the true challenges.
Afghan voices – caught between the past and future
Last time I visited Afghanistan was in December last year. That was my eleventh visit. And it took place at a time when transition process was progressing. Hence the issue of transition frequently surfaced in my talks.
Many Afghan women shared their concerns with me about what will happen after 2014. Hasina Safi, put it like this when I met her: “Fear of the Taliban is part of the mindset of every Afghan woman. But, as of today, no-one dares to admit this openly”. Safi is the head of the Afghan Women Education Center in Kabul, and a staunch campaigner for women's rights.
Her voice is of the future, but it is also strongly attached to the past. It reminds us that looking into the future without taking the past in to account might lead to wrong expectations. The past is never dead, as William Faulkner once reminded us of.
Hasina Safi stressed another point, educating more women. I could not agree more. No action has been proven to have more impact than the education of female children. The evidence is overwhelming: If you educate a boy, you educate a person; if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.
The legacy of Taliban banning more or less any social presence or activity of women left a generation with lost opportunities. As of today more than 80 % of Afghan women remain illiterate.
Today opportunities exist. Unfortunately far too few are aware of them. Hence more information is required, as Safi put it. Afghan women elected to the Parliament have a particular responsibility. So do the educated women. Neither of them can allow themselves resting on their laurels, said Safi.
Solving Afghanistan’s fundamental problems requires women being part of the equation. This is a message stressed by many of those I have met. Many fear that any kind of rights of women, including educational and social rights, could be the first thing sacrificed in an agreement.
Najja Zewari, who is member of the Afghan High Peace Council, spoke on women’s participation in the peace process and the need also for the international community to ensure this takes place. We know that female members of the council have travelled to every province in Afghanistan showing their presence and stressing the important role women can play.
I think this is essential. Attitudes and deep-rooted cultural and religious conviction are not easily changed. But as Zewari underscores, showing presence is key in turning the tide.
The raise of social media, offers an opportunity to show presence, to disseminate information and present opportunities.
Anita Haidary, cofounder of Young Women for Change, recently published a thoughtful and expressive story on the website of her organization. Allow me to read it out for you:
“I am 14 and for the first time I was harassed today; I was asked to not talk back. A voice, my friend, said your words will provoke him more. People will think you are the “bad girl”.
I swallowed my words and with broken heart and hate for myself walked away. I am thinking to myself:
I am wearing “the right length” of dress. I am wearing my scarf “the right way”. I am wearing “the right size” of scarf. I am walking my shoulders down. I am wearing “the right shoes”. I am walking “the right way”. I have lowered my gaze. I am not even thinking. I am not laughing. I am not speaking. In fact I realized I don’t exist anymore; I am hiding every part of me that makes me woman.”
The coming of a civil society
Anita Haidary represents the perspective of a young Afghan girl. It is anger and exclusion. They go hand in hand.
She also represents the coming of a new generation that come out loudly on the issue of women in Afghanistan. Afghanistan needs voices like hers. Its voices like this which can form a strong and vibrant civil society.
Hence Afghanistan needs to hold on their bright and intelligent heads. Also, the international community shares part of this responsibility. We can and should not contribute to an Afghan brain drain.
Lasting peace and stability are dependent on education and broad participation in the political process. This is not only my message, but solidly enshrined in the voices of the future.
I wish you all a successful seminar. Thank you for your attention.