Educating and Empowering the Women and Girls of Afghanistan: A Conference on Education and Literacy


March 19, 2010 - March 20, 2010

The Bush Institute’s March 19th conference, presented in partnership with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and the SMU Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, was formally called “Educating and Empowering the Women and Girls of Afghanistan: A Conference on Education and Literacy.” As the audience discovered, it might equally have been titled “Tragedy, Triumph, and the Job Ahead.”

The conference speakers gave a vivid picture of the hard won accomplishments of a wide range of existing programs in combating illiteracy among women and girls. In so doing, these programs empowered women in their families and communities, and in the economic and political life of their country.

Yet the 300-strong audience of leading educators, government officials, social enterprise leaders, and philanthropists also learned the scope and complexity of the problem. Thirty years of war and the tragedies of Taliban rule, as Mrs. Bush put it, served to silence half the population. Mrs. Bush, along with virtually every speaker, described the fragility of the present state of affairs in Afghanistan that can be particularly hostile for women and girls. Threatened by continuing war and the determination of the Taliban, Afghanistan could move backward as well as forward. As many women have expressed to Mrs. Bush, she in turn challenged the audience, “this is our last chance.”

Equally memorable were the stories of sacrifice and courage displayed by so many in order to change lives. Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United States Said Jawad, reminded us that many of these improvements are a result of the sacrifices of the men and women of the US armed services. At the same time, countless Afghans risk their lives daily in the struggle to bring education and opportunity to the women and girls of the country. These Afghans were represented by many of the speakers themselves, who symbolized countless others.

President Bush described the Bush Institute as a place to not only encourage thought but also action. As Mrs. Bush asserted, President and Mrs. Bush believe democracy and freedom will come to the Middle East through women. And the Bush Institute will develop programs that empower and enable these women to become agents of change in their nations.

The women and girls of Afghanistan suffered for years under the belief that women have no place in society. The audience heard from speakers whose programs translate care and concern into action in every province of Afghanistan, attempting, in the words of Melanne Verver (Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues in the current Administration), “to redress the years of oppression that Afghan women and girls have undergone.”

The solidarity in addressing this goal was impressive, spanning continents, nationalities, and even U.S. presidential Administrations. The Director-General of the UNESCO, Irina Bokova, spoke of the importance of the conference as a means to continue improving lives in Afghanistan. Ambassador Verveer described the Secretary of State’s new initiatives in this area and paid tribute to Mrs. Bush’s role as a catalyst in developing these programs.

The Conference panels presented three kinds of programs now at work in the cities and rural communities of Afghanistan.

•Programs started by Afghan women themselves: Andeisha Farid’s Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO); Shamim Jawad’s Ayenda Foundation; and Dr. Sakena Yakoobi’s Afghan Institute of Learning
•Programs started by individual American women on their own initiative: Julia Bolz’s The American Friendship Foundation; Connie Duckworth’s ARZU, Inc.; and Paula Nirschel’s Institute to Educate Afghan Women, which brings Afghan women to U.S. colleges and universities
•Programs that extend scholarships for Afghan women to American universities, such as the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Program chaired by Anita McBride

All the speakers and panelists spoke to a common theme: education of women is not just a matter of justice – although they suffered incredible injustice under the Taliban regime – but it is a way to ensure the future peace, stability, democracy and economic prosperity of the country and the region. If women are educated and literate, their children and their community will be healthier, more stable, and more prosperous.

The conference itself was a milestone in the crucial work being done with and by Afghan women. The George W. Bush Institute is committed to bettering the lives of women and children through action programs like these in education, economic growth, health care, and human freedom. Building on the courageous work of so many in Afghanistan, we can continue to spread hope to their sisters around the region and the world.