Speech by Political Counselor M. Ashraf Haidari
At the Afghan and American Sisterhood Award Gala
Honoring Nancy Hatch Dupree and Suraya Sadeed
The United States Congress
September 14, 2009
The Honorable Members of Congress, Ambassador Neumann, Friends of Afghanistan,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
On behalf of the Government and people of Afghanistan, I would like to extend our heartfelt congratulations to the honorees, as well as our sincere gratitude to Ambassador Neumann, Humira Noorestani, and tonight’s hosts for holding this Gala at the United States Congress.
When I was recently asked if I could speak at this event, I said I would do anything to honor Nancy Dupree and Suraya Sadeed—both of whom I profoundly respect and admire. Nancy and Suraya are two of the most dedicated humanitarians of our time, and they truly represent the Afghan and American sisterhood this Gala is celebrating this evening. And I hope that this sisterhood—this Afghan and American partnership—will continue until our two nations are secure from the threats of extremism and terrorism, and until Afghanistan firmly stands on her own.
Nancy has been a “friend in need and a friend in deed” of the Afghan people for more than four decades. Nancy went to assist Afghanistan in 1960s when our country was least known in the West; Nancy helped us preserve our cultural heritage in 1970s when our country was rapidly becoming another Cold War victim; Nancy continued raising awareness about Afghanistan and the needs of Afghan refugees in 1980s when our country was invaded and occupied by the former Soviet Union; Nancy stayed on to pick up the pieces in 1990s when the West abandoned Afghanistan and ignored our country’s post-war reconstruction; and, today, Nancy is still working harder, harder than anyone I know to help the Afghan people in our quest for peace, justice, and prosperity.
I share Nancy’s belief that peace and democracy cannot take root in Afghanistan without educating our overwhelmingly young population. You may be surprised to learn that 68 percent of our population is under 25 years old, indeed, a young nation, who craves for peace, who demands and seeks a future with democracy, and who strongly rejects extremism and totalitarian rule.
This is my generation, and I know them better because, like most Afghans today, I was jobless and lacked access to quality education when I was in Afghanistan in 1990s. But even as rockets rained on Kabul, and Pakistan launched the Taliban movement to capture Afghanistan, to shelter Al Qaeda there, and to destroy our cultural heritage, I did not give up hope.
I worked as a street vendor to support my family, while self-teaching English and other subjects to prepare for the day when I could gain higher education outside Afghanistan in order to help rebuild the country, after the Taliban. But I was certainly not alone doing this; there were many, many other Afghans preparing themselves for a new era in Afghanistan.
The decade of 1990s was the darkest period of our history, as foreign extremists were daily victimizing and terrorizing the Afghan people. Our suffering people had been, and continue to be, the terrorists’ primary victims, long before the tragedy of September 11, 2001. So, it is not hard to imagine that there are now millions of young Afghans, who anxiously wait to be given a chance and the means to rebuild and defend our country.
Education is the best means to empower and enable the Afghan people to rebuild and develop our country on the long term. Nancy has done her part for many years now to provide Afghans with information and educational materials they need to improve themselves and to help rebuild our country. And it has been my distinct honor and privilege to serve on the Board of the Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Foundation to support the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, which Nancy directs.
I think the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University is the only modern library we currently have in the entire country. The Center provides access to critical information on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, recent history, and socio-economic and humanitarian issues. With over 38,000 collected items related to Afghanistan, the Center also operates the Box Library Extension, which has placed more than 100,000 books in 160 mobile libraries in 32 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
And, again, I can say from my own experience how much Afghans appreciate having access to these resources. There is such a thirst among Afghan youth to read, and to read anything to learn. But books remain in short supply, just as we hardly had access to books outside what the state-run schools provided in 1980s. And in 1990s, the Taliban ordered most of the remaining books in Afghanistan’s libraries to be burned down. So, at the dawn of the 20th century, when other countries were reaping the benefits of globalization, unfortunately, Afghanistan was the most book-starved nation, and engulfed in unprecedented human suffering.
Today, Afghanistan remains on the bottom of the human development index, primarily because of the worst social indicators among women and children. It is sad to note that Afghanistan has the second-highest maternal mortality ratio in the world, that is, 1,600 per 100,000 live births. Infant and under-five mortality are also high, at 129 per 1,000 live births and 257 per 1,000 live births, respectively.
Now, take a second to imagine how much worse these indicators were under the Taliban eight years ago when Afghan women and children had no access to healthcare or education. I remember, and there are still such cases in remote and insecure parts of Afghanistan, that people, particularly women and children, died of curable health problems because there was simply no medical treatment, nor any female doctors and nurses to provide healthcare for women in rural Afghanistan.
But thanks to the courage and dedication of Suraya Sadeed and other humanitarians, who defied the Taliban and factional violence to deliver lifesaving medical supplies and other basic necessities to the most vulnerable groups of people in Afghanistan. Suraya went in search of helping Afghans, who were just too destitute to make it to Kabul or other urban centers to get the basic necessities they needed to survive.
In spite of the remaining challenges, Afghanistan has made considerable progress in the education and healthcare sectors over the past eight years. More than 7 million children have gone back to school, some 35 percent of whom are girls. Today, there are 17 universities operating across Afghanistan and, in 2008, some 50,000 students enrolled in these universities. The Ministry of Higher Education estimates that there will be 100,000 high school graduates by 2010 and about 1 million by 2014.
And at no time in our history, even during the golden times of Afghanistan in 60s and 70s, did our people have as much access to basic healthcare as they do now across the country. Today, more than 80 percent of the Afghan population has access to basic healthcare, compared to less than 8 percent under the Taliban. As a result, each year, thousands of lives are saved and many patients are treated.
In the political arena, Afghan women have made many strides toward achieving equal rights to men under Afghanistan’s progressive Constitution. Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution affirms women's equality to men before the law, and Article 83 guarantees women 27 percent of the seats in the Lower House and 17 percent of the seats in the Upper House of the Afghan parliament. Beyond the constitutional guarantees, Afghan women have set out to participate and campaign hard in the national elections, including in the most recent presidential and provincial council elections.
In spite of deteriorating security and many threats to their lives, two female presidential candidates and 7 vice-presidential candidates campaigned in the recent elections. And the number of women challenging provincial council seats increased by 20 percent, that is, some 81 more women participated in this year’s provincial council elections, compared to the 2004 and 2005 elections.
These are just a few of the many milestones the Government and people of Afghanistan have achieved over the past eight years. But we could have hardly accomplished these on our own.
We owe to, and share these significant achievements with the United States and our other nation-partners. We are especially thankful to the United States men and women in uniform, who have sacrificed their most precious lives to liberate Afghanistan from terrorism and extremism. And we are most grateful to the United States Congress and the American people for their continued unwavering support for Afghanistan, and for the Afghan women and children.
Indeed, we remain indebted to the U.S. Government and Congress for the substantial increases in security and development assistance to Afghanistan now and in the coming years. This firm commitment to Afghanistan not only honors the memories of the Fallen, but also recognizes the hard efforts of so many dedicated civilians, such as Nancy Dupree and Soraya Sadeed, who have spent a lifetime to help secure the future of Afghanistan.
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