Laura Bush is an honorary co-chair of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and chair of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.
Fifteen years ago, if you were a woman in Afghanistan, you could be beaten for laughing in public or if your shoes made noise. You could be beaten or killed for going out alone, unaccompanied by a male guardian. Covered by burqas, women became strangers. Waiting in bread lines in Kabul, they learned to recognize each other from the sound of their voices and the faces of male children with them. Today, one of those women, Nasima Rahmani, is a leading lawyer and educator, working toward her PhD.
And she is not alone. Women in Afghanistan are changing their lives and their nation. Fifteen years ago, barely 5,000 girls were enrolled in primary school. Soon that number will exceed 3 million. Thirty-six percent of teachers are women. Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, has launched a project to establish a female-only university, run by women. In government, women hold 69 seats in parliament. There are four female government ministers and two female provincial governors. Thousands of women have started their own businesses.
On Tuesday, International Women’s Day, the George W. Bush Institute is releasing a new book, “We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope.” The book recounts inspiring stories such as Rahmani’s, reminding us of both the challenges Afghan women have endured and the incredible successes they have achieved.
It is hard to find another country where women have made such substantial gains against such overwhelming odds in so short a time. In the United States, women won the right to vote in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1969 that nearly all of the elite Ivy League universities started admitting women. By 1961, only 20 women were serving in Congress. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, it can be hard to remember that real change takes time.
We should not underestimate the challenges that women in Afghanistan still face. Later this month, the country will observe the one-year anniversary of the brutal mob murder of a young woman named Farkhunda, who was falsely accused of burning a Koran. There are regular reports of attacks on girls’ schools and attacks on female students. Last July, three girls, ages 16 through 18, had acid thrown in their faces as they walked to school in Herat province. Violence against women remains a serious problem.
Yet I am hopeful. I am hopeful because of the skills, determination and abilities of Afghanistan’s women.
When Sakena Yacoobi stood in a filthy, crowded Afghan refugee camp, she knew the one thing that every Afghan needed was an education. She opened 15 schools for 21,000 refugees. Today, one of her programs in Afghanistan teaches women to read, write and do math using cellphones. Naheed Farid, a young member of Afghanistan’s parliament, faced death threats when she ran for office. Her face was cut out of campaign posters and opponents promised to dishonor her father-in-law’s family. But her husband and father-in-law insisted she continue. Now she advocates for women and children and serves on the parliament’s international relations committee.
Afghanistan is at a crossroads. It is a global hot spot that before 9/11 became a terrorist haven, and it is a young country: The median age is 18.3 years. U.S. policy in Afghanistan must be consistent. Afghanistan is a resilient society. The best way to build on this resilience is to be predictable in our support. If the United States turns its back on Afghanistan, other forces will step in to erase the hard-won but fragile gains that have been made.
We can and must help Afghanistan create a better future. We need to ensure that Afghanistan cannot again become a terrorist haven or fall to the Taliban or the Islamic State. In the interest of our own national security, we must assist Afghan security forces. I welcome President Obama’s decision to maintain a U.S. military presence through 2016 and beyond. We know, and the Afghan people know, that we will not have troops in Afghanistan forever, but the country remains fragile, and the cost of leaving Afghanistan is too high.
We, and the entire international community, should continue to provide significant development assistance in the areas of health care, entrepreneurship and education. We know this assistance works. A 2013 Rand Corporation study found Afghanistan’s metrics have improved in nearly every area of development. By maintaining our presence and support, we are encouraging the Afghan government to keep its security commitments to the Afghan people and to build on economic and anti-corruption reforms and the rule of law. That is why it is critically important that any peace achieved through negotiations between Afghan leaders and the Taliban is not made at the expense of Afghan women. A return to policies that made the Taliban notorious in the 1990s would be traumatic not just for women but also for the stability of the country.
We must never forget that what happens in Afghanistan — and elsewhere in the world — matters to us here at home. The Afghan people are not asking us to solve their problems; they are asking us to remain engaged so that they have the space and opportunity to create their own solutions. As American University of Afghanistan’s first female valedictorian, Onaba Payab, told me: “This is a reminder that we are not alone in those tough places, that there are people who care about us.”