A GUEST POST BY MAURA DONLAN On 1st December at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Obama called for a significant increase in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. He declared that 30,000 additional troops is what is needed to “seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan” by July 2011.
The President stated that he not taken this decision lightly, and I take him at his word. He has not been shy about his distaste for the war in Iraq, and he has taken unprecedented and bold steps to restore the position of global leadership of the United States by initiating a viable process for shutting down Guantanamo and earnestly reaching out to the millions of moderate Muslims who seek to demonstrate that theirs is a religion of compassion and peace. Nevertheless, it is slightly worrying that there was no mention of the status of Afghan women and girls in this 1 December speech nor, more importantly, of the integral role that they can – and must - play in the peace building process in order to achieve this “responsible transition.”
Again, I will give the President the benefit of the doubt. Unlike the previous administration, President Obama has put strong gender advocates into key foreign policy positions – the most prominent being Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her trusty lieutenant Melanne Verveer who now serves in the newly minted position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. Both Clinton and Verveer have understood for decades that - far from being a post-war afterthought - women and girls are, in fact, the linchpin to peace building and post-conflict reconciliation. Indeed, in every instance where women have been given a legitimate seat at the table – such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, Rwanda and Liberia – the post-conflict reconstruction process has proven to be resilient and enduring.
In her first few months in office, Secretary Clinton has not only reaffirmed her commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 , which sets out clear guidelines to promote women's roles in all of conflict prevention and resolution, she has gone one critical step further. On 30 September 2009, she asserted true U.S. leadership and achieved unanimous acceptance of Security Resolution 1888 that calls for the appointment of a special envoy charged with coordinating the efforts to combat the use of rape as a weapon of war and assist governments in ending impunity for the perpetrators.
Secretary Clinton understands the almost counterintuitive duality that, while women and girls are the most vulnerable in conflict situations, if given the ways and means, they can be the most powerful agents of change and the most vociferous champions of peace. And, as Verveer observed on 30 June 2009, “progress in Afghanistan must be measured not just in military terms, but also in terms of social, political, and economic participation of women in rebuilding Afghanistan and in the safeguarding of their human rights.”
There are few places in the world were the status of women and girls is in as urgent need of elevation than Afghanistan. The post-Taliban statistics are still abysmal. According to IRIN:
• Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth • 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate • Only 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan • 1 in every 3 Afghan women experience physical/sexual violence • 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan • 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan
Given that Afghan women are currently some of the most oppressed in the world, it should come as no surprise that there is no way to reach any level of “responsible transition” without a radical redress of the status of Afghan women and girls. At West Point, President Obama exhorted the cadets that “America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict - not just how we wage wars.” Part of that process will be what he terms a “civilian surge that reinforces positive action.” It is my sincere hope that the President is availing himself of the wise counsel of, not only his generals and joint chiefs, but also of his own team who are poised in Foggy Bottom to make sure that both the military and the civilian responses finally use the ways and means necessary to achieve the peaceful ends we all seek.