Everyday we should recognize the strength and achievements of women as mothers, entrepreneurs, local and national leaders. Today, however, it’s particularly important as women around the world commemorate each other’s achievements. International Women’s Day is an occasion to recognize the need for freedom, justice, and equality for all. This year’s theme — the role of women in decision-making appropriately comes after a season of women’s remarkable achievements such as the political participation of women in Iraq and Afghanistan and an increase in the numbers of women heads of state around the globe.
In January, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, inaugurating not only the nation’s first female president, but also the first woman in Africa to be elected head of state.? Tarja Halonen was given a second opportunity to serve her country in Finland when she was re-elected as president in January. Angela Merkel paved the way for young women in Germany upon her election as the new chancellor.
In Afghanistan, Masooda Jalal, who was the first Afghan woman to run for president, currently serves as the Minister of Women’s Affairs. She is an inspiration for the next generations of young women leaders. Afghan women are becoming increasingly involved in the political and economic processes.
One area of particular concern in both Afghanistan and Iraq is the need for rural development. While great strides have been made particularly in the urban areas, rural women also need to be engaged in the social, political, and economic processes so that they can become an integral part of building a stable and strong country that respects women’s rights.
Rural areas of Afghanistan face tremendous daily challenges. As Afghanistan’s Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, describes many of these areas struggle with such fundamental problems as access to food and safe drinking water and a lack of social services, such as health care and education. Developing this basic infrastructure is critical to helping Afghans in rural communities to have the opportunity for legitimate and secure livelihoods.
According to the first nationwide poll in Afghanistan, two-thirds of the population supports women holding government offices, however, this support is especially weaker in rural areas. Additionally, the survey found that 40 percent of Afghans describe life as “very good” compared to 24 percent in rural areas.
As a result, the weak support for women’s human rights and poor livelihoods increases the susceptibility of these communities to becoming breading grounds for terrorists. Developing the infrastructure and providing education and economic expansion will prevent our enemies from using rural neighborhoods as a safe haven. Through extended security and the economic and social advancement of women and men in rural areas, national security will strengthen.
Women in Iraq achieved high representation in parliament and have been actively involved in the constitutional drafting process. Nevertheless, engaging women in civil society and the political process in rural regions remains a challenge. The United States has been particularly active in supporting women’s centers and through grants funded by the United States Department’s Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative, the Independent Women’s Forum and its partner the American Islamic Congress, will provide training and education to advance and support women’s economic empowerment, including skills training and job creation in south and south central Iraq. Developing and continuing projects such as these will foster self-sufficiency and education for rural women and ultimately enhance the economy and national security.
Building stable and secure countries requires the active participation of everyone. International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the progress women have made, but it is a time to renew our dedication to making sure that all women, including those in rural areas, are brought into the democratization process.