By Hodei Sultan -
Last Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped down after serving for four years as America’s top diplomat. While some analysts examine her legacy, others wonder whether she will run for the presidency in 2016. Regardless of her legacy and intentions in four years, Clinton leaves behind “high heels” to fill and many positive achievements in the areas of foreign policy formulation and rebuilding relations. Over the years, Clinton has become a household name to many, but as she returns to private life, she will be remembered for her strong outreach and formidable presence. Chief among her unwavering dedications has been her work to advance the role of women and girls, including those in Afghanistan.
Secretary Clinton created the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) under the able leadership of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer. The Office seeks to ensure that women’s issues are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. S/GWI works to promote stability, peace and development by empowering women politically, socially and economically in challenging countries. Since its inception in 2009, it has strived to hold governments accountable for the systematic oppression of girls and women, and fought for their education in emerging countries. Secretary Clinton made this clear when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325 that stated that “women are still largely shut out of the negotiations that seek to end conflicts, even though women and children are the primary victims of 21st century conflict.”
Ambassador Verveer, a force of her own, has been particularly instrumental in promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan and other post-conflict nations. Verveer continues to connect women’s rights champions in Afghanistan with policymakers and civil society leaders who are committed to ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again experience the oppressive policies of the past.
While Washington has pledged not to support a peace process with the Taliban that could jeopardize fundamental gender rights gains, there are growing concerns among many in Afghanistan that those accomplishments will be increasingly undermined once international forces leave in 2014. Violence towards women has been steadily increasing in Afghanistan while rights activists continue signaling the dire situation Afghan women and girls face across Afghanistan. In December, a well-known Afghan women’s advocate was murdered. Most recently, it was reported that Gulnaz, a young rape victim that was jailed for adultery, has been forced to marry her attacker to escape imprisonment. In March 2012, Human Rights Watch highlighted the plight of women and girls in prisons and juvenile detention centers accused of “moral crimes” – something that often involve fleeing from unlawful forced marriage or domestic violence.
Concerned about the future of Afghan women, Clinton, in her last few hours as Secretary of State, pledged to keep the “issue front and center” by staying on as co-chair of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. The Council, based out of Georgetown University is a public-private partnership created in 2002 by Presidents George W. Bush and Hamid Karzai, connecting the two governments, the private sector, academia, and civil society organizations to develop and implement initiatives in support of Afghan women and children. The Council uses its networks to identify needs in Afghanistan, convene interested partners, and help broker connections for implementation.
Secretary Clinton made sure her work in empowering women continues. On January 30, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum to strengthen and expand U.S. government capacity and coordination across all agencies to better promote gender equality and empower women and girls. In the Memorandum, President Obama reaffirmed that “promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world remains one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time, and one that is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives.” The Memo holds promise for future support to Afghan women that any funding to Afghanistan will ensure better coordination by U.S. agencies to empower women and girls leading up to and beyond 2014.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government and society in general also need to do their part to make sure that not only are the gains protected, but that laws are enforced, new opportunities are created, and women and girls continue to prosper. More importantly, no political compromise that undermines gender rights should be tolerated as part of reconciliation deal-making.
While great strides have been made to promote the rights and opportunities for Afghan women and girls, many incidents surrounding the security and rights of Afghan women over the years necessitate the need for strengthened and renewed commitment by Kabul and Washington to ensure that women are in the words of Secretary Clinton “front and center” in the transition process. Time will tell what the future holds for Afghan women and girls, but it brings comfort to many in Afghanistan and abroad that strong and committed advocates stand beside them in the challenging years ahead.
Hodei Sultan, a founding member of Afghan Analytica, is a Program Officer for the Afghanistan and Pakistan Program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The views reflected here are her own.