STATEMENT: Report from Afghanistan: Women's participation in Elections is Essential

Harvard Press
Thursday, June 10, 2010 - 20:00
North America
United States of America
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
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Editorial statement by Congresswoman Niki Tsongas

Last month President Obama welcomed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the White House for a two-day summit. Their discussions were aimed at addressing the many and varied challenges of stabilizing Afghanistan. These include rooting out corruption in the Afghan government, establishing greater security throughout the country, developing a strategy that targets extremists just across the border in Pakistan, as well as promoting large scale civic and economic development in a country that more closely resembles the 19th century than the 21st.

I have stated many times that because Afghanistan's challenges are not just of a military nature, but also involve long-term development, our president owes the American public a full and fair accounting of what our commitment in Afghanistan entails. The men and women of our armed forces make up the most effective and professional military in the world. When we put them in harm's way, it must be with a clear strategy, and clear and achievable end state. I have repeatedly asked in various venues how our Afghanistan strategy would bring regional stability, how much time and how many troops such a commitment would require, and what our exit strategy would be.

I continue to seek answers to these questions and last month traveled to Afghanistan as part of a congressional delegation for the third time since being elected. We were fortunate to visit with some of our “military moms” serving in Afghanistan, female soldiers who have children back home. One soldier I talked with said that she had a 6-month-old baby at home and her one-year deployment in Afghanistan means that she will not see him again until he is 1½ years old. She is just one of the thousands of soldiers, men and women, who go without seeing their family and loved ones for months on end, highlighting the extraordinary sacrifice that accompanies military service.

The ever-increasing participation of women in our military demonstrates the important contributions women are making to our effort in Afghanistan and around the world. It also stands in stark contrast to the involvement that Afghan women are able to have in public life. One of the most striking observations I made during this trip was that if this country is to become more stable and secure, women must be included in Afghan society and government. This is just another of the many challenges facing this war-torn country.

The Afghan government has made some recent strides in bringing women into the political process, but Afghan women continue to face significant obstacles to their full participation in society and are an untapped resource in the country's efforts to build democracy and increase security. U.S. Female Engagement teams deployed to remote regions of the Afghan countryside have started to make specific contact with women in villages, and organizations like USAID are helping women find jobs like cleaning and packaging raisins for sale.

But outreach efforts cannot be pushed by American and coalition forces alone. The Afghans have an important opportunity later this month to include women in the upcoming “peace jirga,” a conference-style gathering of Afghan tribal and provincial representatives aimed at promoting reconciliation and establishing peace. President Karzai has pledged to include at least 750 women in the 3,000-person jirga, or 25 percent. I believe reconstruction efforts will be more successful if the government meets at least that standard.

It is also essential that women's participation be significant and robust as parliamentary elections go forward later this year and that there is a process in place so that women will be able to participate and lend their full voice to that process. Without their participation, long-term security and stability really will not be attainable.

As always, the most remarkable aspect of these visits is seeing the incredible selflessness and skill with which our troops continue to serve us. Their service and sacrifice should be built upon by an equally strong commitment on the part of the Afghan government to increase its efforts in stamping out corruption and taking greater responsibility for its own security—goals which will be realized more quickly if they capitalize on the great potential and invaluable contributions of Afghan women.