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January 9, 2013

ABA Congressional Briefing Helps Advance Law to Protect Afghan Women

Under Taliban rule, the women in Afghanistan were often left in isolation, their everyday freedoms restricted and their faces hidden behind burqas, a head-to-toe outer garment that provided a small net-covered opening for them to see their limited world. They were forbidden from working and given little to no education. Even though the Taliban no longer controls the entire country, many women continue to face these challenges. Undaunted, women have given to their communities through public service, contributing their ideas and leadership to fortify the region’s rule of law and government.

As the nation looks to rebuild after a decade of war, reinstating the role of women as influential and pivotal members of their communities is a priority for international efforts to strengthen Afghanistan and promote justice for all its citizens. While American troops seek a gradual withdrawal in the region, the safety of all people is an important step for a successful transition. A new law signed by President Obama on Jan. 3 may assist that effort.

The provision, included the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, calls for a report on the protection of Afghan women and girls in order to continue moving toward stability and peace in the region.

A briefing held in July 2012 and co-sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security and the ABA Office of Governmental Affairs helped educate congressional members and staff about the issue. U.S. Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, joined Dr. Kerry Healey of the Department of State Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, ABA President Laurel Bellows, and Jill Rhodes of the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security to examine the status of women in the war-torn region. They discussed the challenges surrounding security, governance and rule of law as women become a part of their home country’s new path. The congressional briefing followed an Armed Services Committee trip to Afghanistan to meet with women during a female shura —a consultation.

As required by the new law, the report will look at the efforts to monitor changes in women’s security conditions in areas undergoing transition. The report will also monitor female participation in local governing bodies, school attendance rates and access to government services; as well as efforts to increase the number of female personnel in the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Once the report is completed jointly by the Department of Defense and Department of State, Congress will determine next steps toward implementing a strategic plan for future generations. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and Ranking Member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, Rep. Davis was instrumental in moving the measure through the House of Representatives. We recently asked Rep. Davis to share some of her thoughts on why this provision to help Afghan women and girls is so important:

ABA: You often speak of “the investment in women” when discussing the rebuilding of Afghanistan. What is the new role that you envision for women in the region?

Rep. Davis: Afghan women have participated in all aspects of civic life in the past, and the future holds promise that they will again. The women I’ve met have demonstrated amazing strength in the face of adversity. However, when we see brave young women being assassinated for holding positions of power in the Afghan government  — like the director of Women’s Affairs, two of whom have been assassinated in the last six months — how can we encourage other women to step into these roles?

I have long said that when women lead, others will follow. We need to show that these women want only the best for their country, and their work will motivate future generations. But security for women has been at the heart of the problem that needs to be addressed as we transition responsibility to Afghan forces.

ABA: When you go to Afghanistan and speak to the women there, what do they tell you?

Rep. Davis: What I have found most fascinating is that these women have the same hopes and dreams for their daughters that women in our country do. They want their children to become doctors and teachers, and anything else they could dream of.

ABA: How important is it to the future of Afghanistan to have more women in public service roles?

Rep. Davis: Just as has been shown in our own military, when women are integrated into different aspects of the Department of Defense, instead of the assumed chaos ensuing, units thrived and worked together. And this is where I truly believe that women must be an integral part of not only the government, but of all fields in Afghanistan. And these women cannot simply be placed into figurehead positions.

ABA: Education is a pivotal step toward equality for women in the region. How will this legislation make education more accessible to women and girls?

Rep. Davis: Each year when I visit Afghanistan, while I see measured progress, there is one message that continues to ring true. And that is the need for continued security. When I hear the stories of acid being thrown in the faces of young girls attending school, it breaks my heart.  But then I hear that they continue to go to school anyway, and I just think that we must do more to protect them. Education is the great equalizer, and without it, the women of Afghanistan will be unable to make contributions to their society, or have the capacity to give back to future generations.