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International Women's Day - Remembering Afghan Women

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Today is International Women's Day, a day that is often overlooked within the United States, but holds deep significance overseas where women have overcome, or continue to be affected by, oppression. And nowhere is this more true than Afghanistan.

International Women's Day has held special meaning for me ever since 2004, when I celebrated it with women in Kabul. Looking back, 2004 was a far more positive time than today. Not just soldiers, but diplomats and aid workers from across the political spectrum moved to Afghanistan to serve there. When I arrived on Thanksgiving Day 2003, the United States diplomatic and aid mission was severely overstretched, given the ravages that two decades of war had left across the country. Still, despite the lack of resources, we were all idealistic about the difference we could make; most of us saw our mission there in moral terms. At the core of this idealism was the hope that we could help liberate Afghan women from the Taliban's chilling barbarism and ensuring that Afghan girls could go to school -- and Afghan women could advance as teachers, students, doctors, judges, journalists, businesswomen, and politicians -- in a new society.

In 2004, Afghanistan's new democratic constitution was passed by consensus, and hailed as one of the most progressive in the Muslim world. Within it, Afghan women are acknowledged as equals to men and are assured, through a quota, 25 percent of the parliamentary seats. A Ministry of Women had also been established in late 2001 to focus full-time on women's advancement. Alas, as with other Afghan governance institutions established early on, this was only a framework for progress: for women to be fully represented in Afghan society much work remains.

Today, six years after I was first in Afghanistan, some progress has been made, but the situation for women remains dire. Over 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate and suffer from little access to health care; they frequently fall victim to violence and a deficient justice system. In January, when President Karzai announced a Grand Peace Jirga with Taliban members at the London Conference, not one high-level Afghan woman representative was present. Today, more than ever before, Afghan women want a renewed commitment from the international community to women's rights in Afghanistan, the commitment that we collectively made in 2001.

In the Obama age, the paradigm has shifted considerably and the Afghanistan war has taken a much more pragmatic tone in the U.S. With a focus on denying al Qaeda a safe haven, reversing the Taliban's momentum and its ability to overthrow the Afghan government, and bolstering Afghan security forces, the U.S. mission there is defined mostly in security terms. This is understandable. After almost nine years, we are tired of war, the strains on our military -- and the strains on our economy. A nation-building project on the scale of the one promised, but hardly fulfilled, in 2002 now seems unrealistic and naive.

As a nation, our idealism for Afghanistan has waned. However, actively working to systematically improve the rights of Afghan women isn't just idealistic, it is also pragmatic. Improving the situation of women in Afghanistan is one of the most cost-effective ways to ensure sustainable development and progress. No society can function, let alone develop, when over half its population is illiterate and under-skilled -- and a lasting peace certainly cannot come without women's representation.

Today, on International Women's Day, I hope we can stop to think about women living in oppression in Afghanistan, and beyond. I hope we can reflect on Afghan women's courage and their progress -- and their current fears that all of it could be taken away from them, again. I hope we can again acknowledge the moral dimension of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and put the advancement of Afghan women back into our national discourse on the war. Working to ensure that Afghan women play an equal role in Afghanistan's development is not just the necessary thing to do, it is still the right thing to do.