By Ambassador Melanne Verveer

Originally posted on The Huffington Post here.


This weekend, policy and thought leaders gathered in Norway for the Oslo Symposium on Advancing Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan, which was co-sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Afghanistan and the U.S. Department of State, along with the Afghan Women’s Network, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. The symposium brought together government leaders, civil society representatives, Afghan and international experts, and an impressive Afghan delegation led by First Lady Rula Ghani to discuss ways Afghans and the international community can continue to work together to sustain and advance gains made by women and girls in Afghanistan.

There is growing momentum in Afghanistan today. Millions of Afghans voted in the presidential elections, and the new unity government is enjoying strong support. On December 4, at the London Conference on Afghanistan, the Afghan government is expected to set out its vision for reform, and the international community is expected to demonstrate its continuing support for Afghanistan.

Earlier in the week, the Asia Foundation released its annual Survey of the Afghan People for 2014, giving us up-to-date insight on what Afghans believe to be the biggest areas of progress and the serious challenges that still remain in their country. This year’s survey included interviews of more than 9,000 citizens from all 34 of the country’s provinces. This is a critical time to reflect on the significant progress that has been made by and for the Afghan people, and to listen to the priorities of women in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has changed significantly since the fall of the Taliban, and the ways in which Afghans view themselves and their country continue to evolve. As we see in the Asia Foundation survey, Afghans are more optimistic and hopeful about the future. Afghans are showing greater support for the Afghan Army, as well as support for the international role in providing technical and advisory assistance to the army and police. Afghans claim being Afghan as a defining feature of their identity.

Although change in some of these areas remains challenging, the progress is well-documented. According to the survey, Afghans perceive some of the biggest problems facing their country to be insecurity — some 65% are concerned about security — unemployment and corruption. These are challenges that both men and women in Afghanistan confront, but women face an additional set of challenges — and successes — that are specific to them. Women want greater opportunities for education and employment, as well as protection from violence. Domestic violence continues to be pervasive.

An interesting change that has come about in recent years is that women are seeking employment in steadily increasing numbers, and are demanding greater opportunities for education as well. This indicates that women are no longer seeing their place in society as solely within the home; many Afghan women see themselves as needed breadwinners who have the right to work. This shift in mindset is a marked contrast from a decade ago. Women are also reporting instances of domestic violence at higher rates, which suggests that women are now recognizing domestic violence as a crime that they feel able to report. The fact that Afghan women are prioritizing these issues is an indicator of the societal shifts that are taking place in large measure because of women’s leadership and engagement.

Many women fear that any future negotiations with the Taliban could lead to a reversal in the gains they have made. Numerous human rights violations continue to be committed against women and girls in Afghanistan on a regular basis. Women’s full participation in the decisions of their government, including in any future negotiations to end the conflict, is essential if Afghanistan is going to solidify the gains that have been made and build a better future.

When women progress, all of society makes progress. That is true in Afghanistan and around the world. The message out of Oslo this weekend was that we must continue to enable and empower the women of Afghanistan, who, as Mrs. Ghani noted, have a significant role to play in “returning peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.”