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Afghan Women Raise their Voices on International Women's Day

In observance of International Women’s Day on March 8, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky presented the International Women of Courage Award to eight leaders in the fight against gender based oppression. This years recipients represented four continents and eight very different cultures, yet all shared a deep commitment to gender equality and empowering women.

Afghanistan was represented in the group by Ms. Suraya Pakzad, the founder of “Voice of Women.” This non-governmental organization encourages girls to stay in school, and shelters and counsels women escaping from forced marriages and domestic abuse. Ms. Pakzad started the organization during the rule of the Taliban and continues to do meritorious service in Afghanistan under threats from religious extremists.

“These heroines also represent so many other women around the world who fight and sacrifice so that future generations may benefit from human rights protections, access to justice and democracy, and greater prosperity and personal security in their countries,” Secretary Rice said.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai participated in a large forum on women’s rights alongside Minister of Women’s Affairs Mrs. Hassan Bano Ghazanfar. In a public address, the President discussed the government’s efforts to improve the status of women in Afghanistan and outlined some of the challenges that remain as Afghanistan moves towards a more equitable society. “I am glad we are celebrating this day with some achievements, but we should remember that we still have several problems and have along way ahead of us,” he told his audience in Kabul.

The President went on to discuss the need for women’s education in a developing country. “[Tribal and religious leaders] should now seriously encourage Afghan women and girls to study so that we can have our own nurses, doctors, and experts in different fields.” President Karzai also re-emphasized the government’s commitment to stop forced marriages and child marriages in Afghanistan. “First, it is for fathers and men in Afghanistan, especially religious scholars and tribal elders, to know that it is wrong,” he said, emphasizing the need for social education. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, women held “gatherings for peace” at a number of public events. At the main gathering in Kandahar province, women bravely donned white scarves as a symbol of peace. "Today we drove by the site of the third suicide bomber in three days,” says Rangina Hamidi, one of the organizers of the Kandahar gathering. “For the past seven years Afghans have celebrated March 8th with cheap gifts given to women to honor them. This year, the women in Kandahar loudly say the best gift for us is peace in our country." Afghan-Americans in New York, Northern California and Northern Virginia demonstrated their solidarity with these women by holding simultaneous events in the United States. These gatherings were supported by Bpeace (The Business Council for Peace), which mobilized international support for the Afghan women by circulating a petition of solidarity: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/afghanpeace

In Jaipur, India, women’s rights leaders from Afghanistan and 45 other countries gathered to share strategies and support. The five day conference covered many issues, but there seemed to be a focus on women’s role in stopping violent conflict. “It is about how women can transform society to help us find new ways of addressing conflict,” the conference organizer Dena Merriam commented.

Sakena Yacoobi, an educator from Afghanistan who ran secret schools during the Taliban rule, was hopeful about the special role women play in peacemaking, "Women bring tolerance and patience," she said, adding "Women can bring solutions – we cannot accomplish that with weapons."

Ms. Yacoobi went on to emphasize the need to work from within a community. While other girls’ schools in Afghanistan face threats from religious extremists, hers remain safe because of the special rapport she has built with the villages that host them. "You have to listen to the communities – to listen to their needs. When the people trust you, they will protect you," she said.

As the Afghan government and dedicated women like Rangina Hamidi, Suraya Pakzad and Sakena Yacoobi work for women’s rights, all of Afghanistan will see the benefits. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “When women stand up for their freedom, all of society benefits.”

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