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July 26, 2012

Education Critical to Improving Lives of Afghan Women and Girls

ABA President-elect Laurel G. Bellows

ABA President-elect Laurel G. Bellows

Two experts on Afghan women’s rights spoke with nearly 100 members of the U.S. Armed Forces, lawyers and Capitol Hill staff at a session sponsored by the _ Standing Committee on Law and National Security. The July 18 program, “Observations from a Female Shura in Afghanistan: Lasting Security and the Promotion of Women’s Rights,” examined the status of women in Afghanistan and the challenges moving forward in areas of security, governance and rule of law.

“There is no question that the women of Afghanistan have a long road to travel before they achieve full equality,” said ABA President-elect Laurel G. Bellows, in introducing panelists Rep. Susan Davis (Calif.) and former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (Mass.). “But events such as this help raise awareness and provide depth to the discussion.”

Recent attacks against women, such as the assassination of Afghanistan’s director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Hanifa Safi, and acid attacks on some schools for girls, have created a large obstacle on the path to gender equality. According to Healey, these types of attacks become critical when combined with the prevalent culture of forced marriages, corruption of police and local figures, and the practice of Baad—in which a young girl or woman is traded to settle disputes between two quarreling families.

Afghanistan has been at war for 30 years. Due to the low life expectancy in this country, 70 percent of Afghans have known only war, said Healey. A silver lining to this fact, however, is that the country can make a change for the better quickly. If this happens, explained Healey, “We will see a quick turnover of culture and power.”

The United States’ role relative to women’s rights in Afghanistan is an active one. Healey believes that education is the key to gender equality. Right now, 90 percent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate. But every day, more women are given access to schools. If Afghanistan continues on this path, the new generation can greatly skew this statistic, said panelists.

More women, too, are studying in college. Though there are programs in place that give some young Afghan men and women the opportunity to go to college in the United States, the panelists warned that taking these students away from their culture isn’t always a gift. Schools such as the American University of Afghanistan provide students the opportunity to pursue advanced degrees while still immersed and active within their own culture.

With the drawdown of U.S. presence in Afghanistan imminent, there are still many ways in which the U.S. can influence the young people in that country. As Healey sees it, one solution is simple: “We need to make sure there are scholarships available in Afghan schools.”