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Stronger Futures for Afghan Women

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Address to the UN Women National Committee Fundraising Event: 'A Night at the Sydney Opera House'


Speaker: Penny Williams, Global Ambassador for Women and Girls

Sydney Opera House, Sydney

I wish to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

It is a great pleasure to be here today and I thank the Australian National Committee of UN Women for the honour of being invited to participate in this important fundraising event for the women and girls of Afghanistan.

I congratulate the Sydney Chapter of Young UN Women Australia for organising this gathering in such a stunning location, a place which not only showcases Australia's iconic beauty – of architecture and cityscape - but a place which is also the embodiment of the enormous opportunity we each enjoy.

Indeed, for most Australians, our challenge is the challenge of largesse rather than deprivation, and the daily danger we face is that all this privilege can work to soften the conscience, to erode the capacity to be in someone else's shoes and to dull our determination to secure freedom, peace, security, inclusion, and well-being for others.

So it's good to be here, gathered around our common commitment to ensure wealth and opportunity are shared, and to demonstrate our support for the women and girls of Afghanistan, who, of all the world's women, are among those most in need of assistance despite improvements since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

One of the more sobering starting points for me personally in this reflection is to consider the fact that if I had been born a woman in Afghanistan, I would have already been dead for several years according to the country's average life expectancy for women of 44 years.

There is a high likelihood I would be illiterate and living without electricity or sustainable access to clean water and sanitation. There would be a 70-80 per cent chance that I had been forced into marriage, probably when I was a young girl. And at least as high a likelihood that I had experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence.

If I were active in public life, I would face disproportionately high levels of threats and violence and disproportionately few opportunities to have a seat at decision-making and peace-building tables.

With this in mind, and as we move towards the post-transition period, I think about what I, were I an Afghan woman, would like to be hearing from governments and civil society organisations around the world at this time.

Importantly, I might be heartened to hear that on the night of 28 June 2013, several hundred women congregated in Sydney in support of me. I might be heartened to know that I was, in fact, not alone and my particular challenges sat deeply in the hearts of people who had never met me.

I would like to hear the sorts of messages which Australia, through its record of engagement in Afghanistan and its clear commitment to future support has delivered repeatedly and continues to affirm.

Simple messages like the fact that we regard the meaningful participation of women, in all aspects of Afghan society, as essential to achieving lasting change in Afghanistan.

If I may share with you an anecdote our recently returned deputy ambassador to Kabul told me.

A senior Afghan official has a regular routine for his first meeting with incoming diplomats in his office in Kabul. From his bottom desk drawer he pulls out a photo book of 1960s Afghanistan - photos of women in modern (60s) dress at Kabul University, women and men working in scientific laboratories, going to the cinema, commuting on public transport. It strikes you that these photos could be from anywhere during that period.

He says that this is the life that Afghans now aspire for the future of their country, thanks to international intervention. He speaks eloquently about the fundamental need for women to be valued for their contribution.

For us gathered here tonight, advocates of women's rights, this story reminds us that it's not just about educating women. To achieve societal change, good men need to be brought along on the task.

Australia's message for our ongoing commitment to women in Afghanistan is clear:

  • Australia would not support a peace and reconciliation process that trades away the rights of women.
  • We condemn violence against Afghan women and girls and we will continue to press for the perpetrators of such crimes to be brought to justice
  • We will continue to urge the full implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law.
  • We will repeat our call for this in Afghanistan and in the United Nations Security Council, as we did only a few days ago during the UNSC Quarterly Debate on Afghanistan [20 June, New York]
  • We regard promoting women's rights, participation in political, economic and social life, and protection from violence as of the utmost priority for Afghanistan.
  • We will work to actively harness the talent and wisdom of Afghan women to meet the challenges that lie ahead of their country.
  • Through the transition and beyond, we will engage with our Afghan and international partners to protect and advance the gains made for women since 2001 because this is imperative to Afghanistan's development.
  • And that all these statements of intention are embodied in practical, material support.

Australia's aid to Afghanistan

The 2012 Development Framework between the governments of Afghanistan and Australia identifies specific commitments by the Afghan government to the protection and development of women and girls.

These commitments support the undertakings in the Australia-Afghanistan Comprehensive Long-term Partnership signed by former Prime Minister Gillard and President Karzai in May 2012.

So addressing gender issues will continue to be a key feature of our aid program beyond transition. [totalling $250 million by 2015-16.]

The program builds on contributions Australia has made to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund since 2003.

Our support to the Trust Fund [$262 million since 2003] has contributed to the rise in girls' school enrolment from virtually zero under the Taliban to 2.9 million today.

We are particularly proud of the Australian funded and built Malilai [pron. Ma-Law-Lai] Girls School in Tarin Kowt. The Governor-General visited the school last year, and commented that she was struck by the tenacity of girls, some as young as five years old, travelling across difficult and dangerous terrain to attend the school.

In July last year, Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, also announced a commitment of $17.7 million to help reduce violence against women in Afghanistan.

Implementation of this program commenced this month. It is supporting national efforts to help change community attitudes about violence against women, and to improve access to justice and services for survivors.

Under the program, Australia is supporting UN Women's Support for Women's Protection Program in Afghanistan. We are partnering UN Women Afghanistan to support Afghan civil society organisations to manage women's protection and guidance centres across nine provinces.

Our advocacy for Afghanistan's women and girls will also continue unabated post-transition. I had the opportunity to discuss issues of concern for women, including education and opportunities for women in public life, directly with the Deputy Minister for Women's Affairs, Ms Sayeda Mojgan Mostafavi [pron. Sa-Yee-Da Mozh-Gone Musta-faa-vi], during her visit to Australia in March.

The Afghan government and the international community have agreed to a Mutual Accountability Framework that commits to protecting women's rights through the implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law and the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan. Progress will be discussed at a meeting of donors' and the Afghan Government in Kabul next week.

We will also continue our support for Afghan accountability institutions such as the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to monitor, protect and promote women's rights.

On a broader multilateral level, as a member of the UN Security Council, Australia has made it a key priority to advocate for the protection of women's rights during conflict, their participation in peace-building and the prevention of violence against women and girls.

In the broad story of Australia's efforts in this area, our involvement in Afghanistan is an important chapter.

Since commencing as a Security Council member in January this year, we have used our role as lead Council member on Afghan issues to raise awareness of the need to promote women's rights in Afghanistan.

In leading negotiations for the renewal of the mandate for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), we successfully included language enabling UNAMA to continue to defend the rights of women.

We will similarly work to defend, and where possible strengthen, gender-related language in the upcoming renewal of the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and also in next year's UNAMA mandate renewal.

And at the national level, we are encouraging the Afghan Government to finalise and implement a National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, as agreed under the 2012 Development Framework. This is in line with our commitments under Australia's own National Action Plan.


The prosperity of Afghanistan's women and girls depends on the continued advocacy of all of us, wherever we find ourselves – in the corridors of the United Nations, in civil society or in government.

The presence of so many committed individuals here tonight encourages me that despite the myriad challenges in Afghanistan, we can assure Afghan women that they are not alone.
Tonight we are pledging again to support the efforts of Afghan women to carve out a future where their rights are safeguarded and where they are free to pursue their aspirations and realise their potential as equal members of society.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 5 July 2013
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