Casey Co-Chairs Foreign Relations Subcommittee Hearing on Afghan Women

WASHINGTON, DC--U.S. Bob Casey (D-PA) today joined Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to preside over a joint hearing of the Foreign Relations Subcommittees on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs and on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues. 

The hearing was titled, “Afghan Women and Girls: Building the Future of Afghanistan,” and focused on ensuring that Afghan women are given the tools and opportunities to play a key role in the future of Afghanistan.

Senator Casey’s opening statement is below.


OPENING STATEMENT
SENATOR ROBERT P. CASEY, JR.
February 23, 2010

Today, the Subcommittee meets to examine the many crises confronting Afghan women and girls, a topic which has important humanitarian and national security implications.  Our development assistance as well as our civilian engagement strategy in Afghanistan should start with a focus on women and girls, especially given the central role that they play in Afghan society.  Improving their lives today can have a ripple effect of helping generations of Afghans on a wide range of issues, including equality before the law, nutrition, education, and security.  Supporting women and girls in Afghanistan is not only in our national interest, it is the right thing to do.

Since the fall of the Taliban, there have been some improvements to women’s rights, such as the creation of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and the guarantee of equal rights for men and women in the new constitution.   Yet despite the Afghan government’s pledges to continue advancing women’s rights, there has been minimal follow through. 

Indeed, Afghan women remain among the worst off in the world with respect to life expectancy as well as quality of life.  The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has stressed that it is the Afghan government’s responsibility to lead the fight to reduce violent actions against women by educating the population and demonstrating an active commitment to safeguarding women’s rights. Just last year a report released last year by the U.N. entitled, “Silence is Violence,” illustrates that the trend of violence against women, including rape, is on the rise.  The report discusses the numerous attacks on girls’ schools and female students, including gas and acid attacks.  Many incidents of violence and rape go unreported, and when they are reported, they are rarely a priority for the police. 

A human rights report recently published by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department highlights the increasing rate at which women are turning to suicide to escape the abuse they suffer daily.  Many of the women who commit suicide are in their early twenties.  Almost two-thirds of Afghan marriages involve girls under the age of 16, many of whom were forced into marriage.  Some girls try to escape, but there are few places for them to go once they have run away.  Some women are only able to find shelter in prison.

Afghan women face an uphill battle in politics too.  In last year’s presidential election, Afghan women were unable to exercise their basic right to suffrage because they require separate polling stations, many of which weren’t open due to lack of female electoral staff.  We have received reports that Afghan officials are considering changes to the electoral system which could diminish the role of women in parliament. 

The U.S. Government also can do more to help Afghan women.  The Afghan Civilian Assistance Program has had great success in delivering supplies to help families rebuild their lives in conflict areas of the country. In the event of civilian deaths in Afghanistan due to ISAF operations, compensation for families across the country is uneven – different ISAF countries provide different levels of compensation or no compensation at all.  In a culture where compensation is expected, this has caused more suffering among women in particular who need immediate funds for funerals, to travel to stay with family, and to feed their children.  I know that General McChrystal has championed an effort to create uniform standards for family compensation and I hope that the upcoming NATO ministerial conference will address this important issue.

Despite the challenges that Afghan women and girls face, there are some reasons for optimism.  There are courageous leaders in and outside of government in Afghanistan, as well as in the international community, who are fighting for the rights of women and girls.   Several NGOs, such as the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), have been implementing programs to give Afghan women economic independence, which will help them in the social and political realm.  Seema Samar’s leadership at the Afghan Human Rights Commission is remarkable and I look forward to hearing her observations.  There are countless women across Afghanistan who work on a daily basis to ensure that life will be better in the future for their daughters and sons.

It is America’s moral obligation to use every tool we have available to help secure women’s rights in Afghanistan.
 
I was pleased to see that the Obama Administration’s budget maintained a high level of foreign aid for FY2011.  The U.S. government should identify better ways to use money—and other tools—to secure Afghan women’s rights. As we stay focused on the important task of security Afghanistan’s political future, we cannot lose sight of the many threats Afghan women and girls are facing.  

We are joined here today by an esteemed panel of experts, who will discuss the myriad challenges confronting Afghan women and girls.  Our first witness is Dr. Sima Samar, Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Dr. Samar also serves as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan.

Our second witness is Rachel Reid, a Kabul-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.  She also has an extensive journalism background working as a reporter, editor, and producer for the BBC.

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