Presentation to a Senate Committee

This is a presentation to the Senate of Canada Standing Committee on Human Rights, delivered by CARE President and CEO Kevin McCort on November 15, 2010.

Honourable Senators,

I want to thank you for inviting me here today to speak with you about how Canada can and should be the leader in supporting and empowering Afghan women as we consider the future role of Canada in Afghanistan.

I hope you have all had a chance to see the report CARE Canada released in October with recommendations for how Canada can play that leadership role. If not, I have brought some copies. The primary author of the report, and CARE’s expert on women’s issues in Afghanistan – Jennifer Rowell – could not be here to answer your questions as she has returned to Kabul. However if any of you would like an opportunity to speak with her as well, please feel free to contact me and we can give you her contact information.

So you are aware of our background and level of expertise: As of 2011, CARE will have been working in Afghanistan for 50 years. We were there on the ground during the Taliban years. The only time we did not have a direct presence was during the Soviet invasion and occupation, when we moved our office across the border into Pakistan, and continued to direct programs with Afghan partner organizations from there. We are the largest partner in the largest coalition providing education for Afghan children, particularly girls. With support from CIDA, we have had programs working with vulnerable Afghan widows providing food, livestock, vocational training, teaching them about rights, and organizing them into advocacy associations so they can fight for those rights. We also do maternal health programming.

I would like to briefly address the question: “why women”.

According to the UN’s Human Development Index, Afghanistan currently stands at 181 out of the 182 countries analyzed through that method. According to the Gender-Related Development Index, which measures disparity between men and women in basic human development, Afghanistan currently has the lowest recorded GDI rating in the world, ranking 155 out of 155 countries.

Afghanistan is currently tied with Sierra Leone in having the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

Afghan women have made some significant gains since 2001. A record number of women ran in the recent Afghan Parliamentary elections, despite the threats and risks. In 2001, little more than 100,000 children were going to primary school in all of Afghanistan, almost none of them girls. Today there are over seven million children in school, one third of them girls. But we are at risk of losing all those gains if we do not work now to preserve them.

It is simply the RIGHT THING TO DO. Real development is not possible without gender equity. Security is not possible without gender equity. Beyond this, these are dangerous times. Afghan women are scared. They fear what might be ahead. They’re willing to stand their ground, but they need a strong supporter in their corner.

Why should Canada take on this role?

Canada is strongly positioned to become a leader – there is a vacancy, and Canada has both the credibility and the structure to fill it. Canada is already ahead of most of the other donor nations in terms of gender programming, and speaking out publicly in defense of Afghan women’s rights, such as opposing the Shia family law.

Focusing on women in this current void of attention would not just reinforce Canada’s character as one of the world’s defenders of human rights and justice, but actually strengthen that standing in the world’s eyes.

Focusing on women is also a cost-effective way to have maximum impact. This policy focus would not mean increasing the budget for Afghanistan, or even shifting the entire current military budget over to support the new focus. What CARE Canada is suggesting is simply scaling up some of the successful work Canada is already doing or supporting, and examining and adjusting some of the other programs to make them more effective. It would mean being the added value both in equity programming specifically, but also in the other priority areas that Canada is interested in supporting.

What does Canada need to focus on to be the leader in empowering Afghan women?

In the area of development, everyone is focusing on availability of services, limited attention is being put on women’s ACCESS to those services. The report outlines several options on how this might be done. Some key areas that Canada can invest in are maternal health and secondary education. Canada has committed over one billion dollars to maternal and child health. As already stated, Afghanistan has one of the worst maternal and child health situations in the world. On education, there has been considerable work and considerable success in increasing girls’ access to primary education. However, once girls complete primary school there are few opportunities still for them to continue their education if they wish.

In the area of Rule of Law. Security is impossible in the absence of a rule of law. Canada can still be involved in the overall matter of security even after Canadian troops pull out, by focusing its attention on preparing the ground in which real security must find a foundation. The report describes options on how this might be done. One specific suggestion is improving the training for Afghan police in the area of community policing and women’s rights. Currently Afghan police get eight weeks of training. Over seven weeks of that is counter-insurgency policing. Less than four days is spent on community policing, and only half an hour on women’s rights.

Peace & Reconciliation. NATO recently declared that the presence of a handful of women in the High Peace Council is a sure sign of progress. It is not. Believing so is dangerous. Canada can be the one that pushes for the right safeguards for women’s rights and participation to be put into place. No one else is doing it.

Support women’s groups to be their own leaders, then follow their lead. Civil society needs backers if it is to take on the tough issues. They don’t need more training courses on how to be leaders. They need resources and support to engage in monitoring, report generation, advocacy, and so on.

Broker women’s voices in circles they are unable to access. This means three things: Consult, Represent, Deliver. Develop a consultation calendar with women on key issues. Be the player consistently able to say how women are feeling and what they are thinking on issues that matter. Negotiate their space at the table at every occasion, or speak on their behalf where they are unable to speak: literally, carry to the table a message prepared by women’s groups and ask for time to read it out loud. And finally, to the degree possible, Canada’s own policy positions should be driven by the results of these consultations.

Finding the added value in everything Canada invests in. A big example of this would be the establishment of gender equity monitoring models – something currently missing across a variety of sectors. Monitoring mechanisms are needed both within ministries and to be employed by civil society.

I would like to close by addressing a few pervasive myths and challenges regarding women and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

First and foremost: advocating for Afghan women’s rights is not imposing Western values. In all major agreements and strategic plans since Bonn, the Afghan government has committed itself to gender equity, and has asserted Afghan ownership of these principles. The Afghan constitution guarantees these rights. It now requires the support, and often the push, to turn its commitments into living principles.

Second, Afghan culture is not the barrier everyone thinks it is. Too much gets lumped under the label ‘culture’, but if you break it down, analysis might reveal that ‘culture’ is actually a matter of distance, or cost, or ignorance. Many Afghan fathers are not sending their daughters to school, not because they don’t believe in educating girls, but because the school is too far, or lacks women teachers, or is too expensive. And where culture is indeed a factor, engagement directly with men, or partnering with moderate mullahs, has proven to be effective. CARE has proven successes working with women and their communities on education, health, and livelihoods for women. The report details options for how this can be done.

Don’t be blinded by the decoys. Much attention is placed on integrating gender across bureaucracies, but real change is not possible without political will at the senior levels of Afghan government. Civil society must be given the capacity to monitor and report on abuses, and to challenge the culture of impunity at the highest level. This is one of the most important duties of civil society anywhere in the world, and Canada’s full effort should go into supporting this task in Afghanistan.

Reporting success to the Canadian public. Another reason why ‘softer’ issues of access are less invested in, or socio-cultural barriers are rarely addressed, is because donor governments feel they need to prove impact through concrete numbers to their taxpayers. We build schools and hospitals because they are easy to count and report to the public, while failing to address the fact that barriers still prevent women and girls from using those facilities. The fact that you can’t see tangible results from working on issues of access or socio-cultural barriers is a myth. Our maternal and neonatal support programming attest to this. We have proven dramatic improvements in maternal health when basic information is passed to household decision-makers. These are hard facts; attributable, genuine improvements in people’s lives, backed up with concrete statistics, and often attainable for the fraction of the investment of facility construction.

And finally, there is the issue of time. We’re at a critical crossroads with the Peace and Reconciliation happening. We have to act now.

I will now be happy to take any questions you may have.

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