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Afghanistan Must Embrace Women's Rights

October 10, 2010 5 minute Read by Laura Bush

The haunting portrait of a young, disfigured Afghan woman on Time magazine’s cover this summer issued a stark reminder that the stakes in Afghanistan are high — and that the consequences of failure are brutal, especially for women. On Friday I met with Bibi Aisha in California, where, thanks to the compassion of many individuals and organizations, she is receiving reconstructive surgery and beginning the long road of healing. The visible scars of her disfigurement will heal with time, but moving beyond the emotional and psychological trauma of her torturous mutilation may be more difficult. Bibi Aisha’s story and the prevalence of intimidation and violence against Afghan women raise important questions for those working to establish this young democracy. Will Afghanistan embrace and protect the rights of all people? Or will it be a nation that allows the oppression of women to continue unabated? These questions are central to the challenges confronting those who seek peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan today. Nine years ago, many around the world learned of the severe repression and brutality against women that was common in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Girls were forbidden to attend school. Women were imprisoned in their homes and denied access to doctors when they were sick. And Afghanistan had the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.

Bibi Aisha on the Aug. 9 cover of Time. Photo Credit: Jodi Bieber/INSTITUTE for TIME

Today there are encouraging signs of progress: More than 6.2 million students are enrolled in Afghanistan’s schools, and 35 percent of them are girls. Afghan women serve as government ministers and lead as provincial governors. Women have been elected or appointed to the National Assembly. Afghan women work as entrepreneurs, educators, lawyers and community health workers. And their work is essential to the growth of the Afghan economy. Yet serious challenges remain. A culture of fear still silences women. In many rural areas, those who dare to teach receive letters threatening not only their own lives but their children’s as well. And though the Afghan constitution guarantees 25 percent of seats in parliament to female legislators, assassinations of prominent women have driven many from public life. Among those who remain, many are muted by fear. Though some Afghan leaders have condemned the violence and defended the rights of women, others maintain a complicit silence in hopes of achieving peace. But peace attained by compromising the rights of half of the population will not last. Offenses against women erode security for all Afghans — men and women. And a culture that tolerates injustice against one group of its people ultimately fails to respect and value all its citizens. Only four years ago, one Kuwaiti woman fighting for universal suffrage spoke out with a compelling message: “Half a democracy is not a democracy.” The truth of her statement resonated among the people of Kuwait, and that year women there attained the right to vote. Today, Rola Dashti’s words call to account Afghanistan and all nations in which women are oppressed and persecuted. A democracy that allows half its population to be silenced by fear, violence or intimidation is not a democracy. And a society that fails to protect the rights of women is not a free society. Afghanistan’s leaders must defend women’s rights with action and policy, not just lofty rhetoric. True reconciliation cannot be realized by sacrificing the rights of Afghan women. To do so would reverse Afghanistan’s progress and return its people to the perilous circumstances that marked the Taliban’s rule. There are clear choices for those entrusted with ensuring Afghanistan’s peace and prosperity. Will Afghanistan be a nation that empowers women, or one that oppresses them? Now is a moment of decision. It is incumbent upon the Afghan people to make the most of this moment in their history. Laura W. Bush is a former first lady of the United States and an honorary adviser of the U.S.–Afghan Women’s Council. She leads the Women’s Initiative at the Bush Institute in Dallas, with the goal of advancing social and economic opportunities for women and girls in America and around the world.


Author

Laura Bush
Laura Bush

Laura Bush, former First Lady of the United States, is an advocate for literacy, education, and women’s rights. After leaving the White House, President and Mrs. Bush founded the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. The Center is home to the Bush Presidential Museum and Library and the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center established to advance human freedom, economic growth, education reform, and global health.

Today Mrs. Bush pursues her work on global healthcare innovations, and empowering women in emerging democracies through the George W. Bush Institute. She serves as the Chair for the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative, guiding the Institute’s programs to advance economic opportunity, good health and human freedom for women and girls. Women’s Initiative programs are training women leaders in Egypt, raising awareness of Afghan women’s progress and plight, and convening African first ladies, government officials and public-private partnerships to invest in women’s health to strengthen Africa.

Laura Bush is a leading voice for spreading freedom and promoting human rights across the globe. For more than a decade, she has led efforts through the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council to protect the hard-earned rights of women in that country. As First Lady, she made three trips to Afghanistan and in 2001 she delivered the President’s weekly radio address – a first for a First Lady – to direct international attention to the Taliban’s oppression of women.

Long a supporter of the people of Burma, in 2006 Laura Bush hosted a roundtable discussion on Burma at the United Nations headquarters in New York. After Cyclone Nargis devastated the country in May 2008, she held an unprecedented press conference in the White House Press Briefing Room and urged the ruling junta to accept international aid. She then traveled to the Thai-Burma border, where she met with Burmese refugees. In 2012, Mrs. Bush helped to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal to Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The legislation for the medal, signed by President Bush, had been awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi in 2008 when she was under house arrest.

As First Lady, Mrs. Bush advocated the importance of literacy and education to advance opportunity for America’s young people and to foster healthy families and communities. She highlighted the importance of preparing children to become lifelong learners, convening in 2001 a White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development. Since 2003, she has served as the Honorary Ambassador for the United Nations Literacy Decade. Laura Bush visited schools and met with students in nations from Afghanistan to Zambia, with a particular focus on the education of girls and women. Mrs. Bush worked with the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. in 2001. The National Book Festival continues to this day and annually attracts more than 120,000 Americans. The Texas Book Festival in Austin was founded in 1996 by Mrs. Bush while she was First Lady of Texas. At the Bush Institute in Dallas, President and Mrs. Bush’s Education Reform initiative works to improve student achievement through effective school leadership, middle school transformation, and the use of accountability.

Because heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women, in 2003 Laura Bush partnered with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to launch The Heart Truth campaign and the Red Dress project. The Heart Truth campaign aims to raise awareness among women about their risk for heart disease. In 2006, she helped launch the first international partnerships for breast cancer awareness and research. As First Lady, she visited countries in Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America to support programs that help women detect breast cancer early so they can seek treatment when it has the best chance of success. Mrs. Bush has visited more than a dozen countries to support the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the President’s Malaria Initiative. Today through the Bush Institute, Laura and George Bush continue their work to promote women’s health through Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, a health initiative that adds the testing and treatment of cervical and breast cancer to PEPFAR in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mrs. Bush is the author of the bestselling memoir, Spoken From the Heart, and bestselling children’s book, Our Great Big Backyard. She serves on many boards, including the National Advisory Board for the Salvation Army, the Council for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Board of Trustees for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Laura Bush was born in Midland, Texas, to Harold and Jenna Welch. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Southern Methodist University and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas. She taught in public schools in Dallas, Houston and Austin and worked as a public school librarian. She served as First Lady of Texas from 1995 to 2000. President and Mrs. Bush are the parents of twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, son-in-law, Henry Hager, and proud grandparents of Margaret Laura “Mila” and Poppy Louise Hager. The Bush family also includes two cats, Bob and Bernadette, as well as Freddy the dog.

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