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Transition Brings Uncertainty for Afghan Women

February 1, 2013 by Sara Van Wie

Introduction by Charity Wallace: "2013 is a year to watch at the Bush Institute, from the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center to the programs that are improving people’s lives around the world.  This year, the Women’s Initiative is equipping women leaders in Egypt, raising awareness of the progress and plight of Afghan women, and convening African first ladies,  government officials and public-private partnerships to invest in women and strengthen Africa.  The New Year has begun with great momentum, particularly in the Women’s Initiative.  Building upon the leadership and resolve of President and Mrs. Bush in support of Afghan women, the Women’s Initiative’s Afghan Women’s Project advocates for the empowerment of Afghan women, shares information on their advancement and setbacks, and raises the profile of projects that benefit them.  The Bush Institute has convened two conferences on Afghan women, in March 2010 and 2011 respectively, emphasizing the importance of education for women and the impact of economic inclusion of women in society.  I am delighted to introduce Sara Van Wie, the new Research Associate for the Afghan Women’s Project.  Her first blog, below, is an account of her first week with the Project.  During this memorable week, she met courageous young Afghan women who are attending U.S. colleges and universities thanks to the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, and she attended President Hamid Karzai’s remarks at Georgetown University.  The events of the week highlight the important work of the Afghan Women’s Project as we consider that the stakes remain high for Afghan women.  The hard-won progress of the last decade must be maintained, especially for women and girls, if Afghanistan is to succeed."

President Hamid Karzai, in his address at Georgetown University on January 11, argued that a “wheel of progress” is turning in Afghanistan.  It is true: significant gains in maternal and child health, the expansion of transportation and telecommunications infrastructure, increased female representation within Parliament, and the return of women and girls to education and the workplace mark areas of significant progress for Afghanistan within the past decade.  These gains are real and should be celebrated. However, it is not past successes that have the attention of Afghan citizens, policy makers, and advocates.  In 2013, Afghanistan faces various and significant transitions in the areas of security, economics and politics.  It is not progress, but uncertainty that seems to define the current moment for Afghan citizens and leaders.  Questions loom large: will gains in education, health, economic opportunity and human rights be upheld in 2014 and beyond? And, more importantly, will they be expanded? Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) with more than 20 Afghan young women who are studying at universities in the U.S. with the support of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW).  These powerful, well-spoken women responded to questions concerning the challenges facing Afghanistan, gave examples of promising developments within their communities, and provided input for more effective involvement by the international community. I listened as the young women passionately expressed their concerns, successes and hopes.  They spoke of discrimination, based not only on sex, but also age and ethnicity, that limits their opportunities in education and employment.  They told stories of risks they had taken to apply knowledge and skills in the context of their families, schools and communities, where a young woman’s ideas and opinions are typically not valued or heeded.  They emphasized the importance of projects and policies that can be sustained by the Afghan people, and stated their commitment to be active participants in the economic, political and social life of their country. Needless to say, the passion, intelligence and boldness of these young women affected me deeply.  I felt honored to start my work at the Bush Institute’s Afghan Women’s Project in conversation with such a diverse, talented group of Afghan women.  As I reflected on the discussion in light of my tasks for 2013, one statement continued to ring in my mind.  With respect to their portrayal in the U.S. and Afghan media, one student said, “[Afghan] women are talked about, but they do not represent themselves.”  It is my goal and privilege to capture the voice of Afghan women during the course of 2013, and to communicate the successes, the concerns and the opportunities that Afghan women, both young and old, face in a time of uncertainty and transition.  My hope is that we at the Women’s Initiative do not merely talk or write about Afghan women, but allow them, through various forms and media, to represent themselves.

This post was written by Sara Van Wie, Research Associate for the Afghan Women’s Project in the Women’s Initiative. Introduction provided by Charity Wallace, Director of the Women's Initiative.

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