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First Ladies Highlight a New Era for Afghan Women

The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council held their annual meeting at Georgetown University to review the status of Council projects in Afghanistan, the progress made by Afghan women, and the future of United States engagement in the country.

Article by Anita McBride March 30, 2017 //   4 minute read
Mrs. Laura Bush, First Lady of Afghanistan Mrs. Rula Ghani, and members of the U.S Afghan Women's Council. (Phil Humnicky / Georgetown University)

The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council held their annual meeting yesterday at Georgetown University to review the status of Council projects in Afghanistan, the progress made by Afghan women, and the future of United States engagement in the country. 

The non-partisan public-private partnership was established in 2002 by President George W. Bush and President Hamid Karzai to address the critical needs of Afghan women and girls. 

Fifteen years later the work of the Council has continued uninterrupted, has thrived , and has expanded its membership despite ongoing security challenges and changes of Administration in both the U.S. and Afghan governments.   The member-driven initiatives in the areas of health, education, economic empowerment and leadership continue to address the needs outlined 15 years ago, but even more importantly, they highlight the experiences and successes of Afghan women.  These stories of hope and progress too often go under-reported.

Underscoring the powerful platform a first lady has, three current and former first ladies help lead the Council, serving as Honorary Co-Chairs and guiding the Council’s engagement and future plans.  Former First Lady Laura Bush, former First Lady and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and First Lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani provide invaluable leadership and support to the Council.  Yesterday, both Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Ghani addressed the Council, and Mrs. Clinton sent a message to be read on her behalf reminding Council members that it “has never been more important or more urgent for women to have a seat at the table.”

Referring to those early days when the Council was established primarily with American support, Mrs. Bush said, “it is exciting to see how the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council has come full circle with strong leadership from the First Lady of Afghanistan, and the strength and perseverance of the Afghan people.”  

In introducing First Lady Rula Ghani, Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib spoke of the  period in 2014  when the future of Afghanistan was tenuous  and challenges to the newly elected leadership threatened the success of the presidency and Afghan institutions.  It was a “doom year” he said, but “the resilience of the Afghan nation was seen through the resolve of Afghan women.“   In her remarks, Mrs. Ghani also spoke of the changes the country has faced and specifically highlighted the growing maturity of Afghan women leaders willing to speak up in public places calling it a “new era for Afghan women.”   She reminded us that Afghanistan is facing a reduction of donor funds and the task is to do more with less and seeking investment rather than donorship. 

Mrs. Ghani gratefully acknowledged the commitment of the Council and outlined three ways to measure the impact and sustainability of Council projects: how they transfer knowledge; the creation of healthy business partnerships; and eventual Afghan ownership of programs. 

She spoke specifically of the importance of economic empowerment of women as the key that guarantees the path to progress for women.  “The minute a woman contributes to the economy of her family”, she says, “she earns the right to speak up.”

Anita McBride is Executive-in-Residence, Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, School of Public Affairs at American University.


First Lady Rula Ghani, Phyllis Magrab of the U.S-Afghan Women's Council, and Mrs. Laura Bush (Phil Humnicky / Georgetown University)
Mrs. Bush, Mrs.Ghani, and members of the GWBI staff and several members of the Bush Institute Women’s Initiative Policy Advisory Council (Phil Humnicky / Georgetown University)