On March 5, 2008, Halima Karzai was invited to a luncheon at DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute to celebrate International Women’s Day.  She addressed an audience of 70 students to celebrate women’s global achievements and accomplishments, as well as discussing some of the challenges women in the 21st century still continue to face.  

View the video and pictures from IWF event “Securing Afghanistan: The Role of Women.”

Remarks of Halima Karzai


Prepared for Delivery


DePaul University’s 

International Human Rights Law Institute

March 5, 2008

Good afternoon. I am honored to be here with you today and I thank DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute and President Cherif Bassiouni for inviting me to celebrate with you International Women’s Day, by reflecting on women’s global achievements and contributions and also to examine some of the global challenges women continue to face in the 21st century .  While my work at the Independent Women’s Forum is focused on  international women’s issues, where we believe all issues are women’s issues and that human rights ARE women’s rights, I will explore issues which I speak of regularly and issues that have been of particular concern to IWF.

Historically women have always been an essential to their families, their societies, and to their nations since the beginning of time.  However today, now more than ever, women are being recognized on a local and global level for their achievements.  Their contributions are invaluable in both the public and private spheres in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago.  Women are and have been contributing from the sciences to the arts, from politics to business, and as mothers and heads of state.  They are their nation’s reformers. They stand for justice and for the overall empowerment of women and girls, even at the expense of their own personal security. They are the human rights defenders of their nations. 

Through my work, travels, and interactions with people of different cultures, faiths, and ethnicities, I have learned how important it is to always listen to different views.

This includes listening to various news outlets, and not only ones that have breaking news is about Britney Spears’ latest mental breakdown.

As humans, we may tend to have a view instilled in our mind which will always exclude thoughts contrary to our belief, so when I speak to you about issues today, it’s not with the intention to change your mind, but just to have you simply think outside the box and to think creatively about solutions.

A few months ago, an Afghan women from Kandahar province, the most violent province in Afghanistan, was determined to organize a gathering where women took to the streets to hold a prayer for peace.  Women not only participated in the peace prayer in Kandahar, but in 6 other provinces in the country.  On March 8th, on International Women’s day, let us remember the women of Afghanistan, who will yet again put their lives at risk to stand for peace not only for themselves, but for the men in their lives.  They believe only Afghans can stop the violence against other Afghans. They took as their model two ordinary women in Ireland who, in the 1970s, grew angry because Irish were killing Irish. They hope that because their Irish sisters were able to go door to door and convince women to march for peace, their cries for peace can also be heard.  Of course we can see this as a significant achievement for Afghan women.

Iraqi women were absent in key decision making roles for over 30 years. In spite of challenges they continue to face, they remain to be more resilient than ever in working for a society that will treat them with equality. Among many other accomplishments, they are making arduous strives to improve their economy, to achieve peace, and towards gaining AND retaining their basic human rights.

Iranian women will again take to the streets on International Women’s Day, to peacefully protest the degrading treatment they have been subject to by the Iranian regime.  And as they did last year, they will put themselves at the risk of being arrested and brutally beaten to have their voices heard.  The regime, who is prosecuting those campaigning for women’s rights claims in no other country are women treated better than in Iran.  I’m sure this claim falls in line with the fact that there are no homosexuals in Iran.  In spite of the threats and backlash Iranian women are facing, they are still advocating to end discriminatory practices against women in Iran.

Although it may be true that we don’t hear as much about women’s international achievements as we should, I stand before you today to say, we certainly don’t hear about the challenges they are silently and continuously facing.

“In this century where man has reached Mars, Afghan women are still striving to establish ourselves as human beings.”  These are words from a young human rights activist living in Afghanistan, yearning for the international community to hear her pleas not to abandon the women of Afghanistan.

How often do we hear similar pleas from women of other developing nations?  Unless they are for politicized reasons, how often do we read or hear about the unnecessary ordeals and hardships women face? Although I can’t go into detail about all these challenges, because they are so egregious I will summarize some of the most daunting atrocities women and girls face in the world today.

Women and children are used as weapons to murder themselves and innocent civilians because they are told this is what’s right and a path to freedom without even asking “freedom for whom?”. In many cases, for example in Afghanistan, handicapped or mentally incapacitated men, women, and children are used as suicide bombers. 

In the developing world, domestic violence harms and kills more people than cancer or car accidents. A recent study reported that violence against women causes more deaths and disabilities among women aged 15 to 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or even war.

Women in developing countries who are involved in peace processes continue to face obstacles and challenges as a result of violence against women, poverty, limited access to education, devastated economies, lack of social structures, and other various forms of discrimination and injustices.  Just recently, we were witness to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani Prime Minister, whose calls for democracy and change were violently silenced.

Over 130 million women and girls have had their genitalia mutilated. They are convinced it is part of their culture and religion. Female genital mutilation, also called female circumcision is a practice commonly carried out in African countries and parts of Asia and the Middle East.  The highest maternal and infant mortality rates are in areas practicing the procedure.  In areas where antibiotics are not available, for example in Sudan, 1/3 of the girls undergoing the practice will die.  FGM is continued on the basis that it is a “good tradition”, a religious requirement, and a necessary rite of passage to womanhood. We have yet to gain knowledge about what our sisters across the world are facing.

Because of poverty, and in many cases tradition and family pressure, children are being married off to men 30 to 40 years their senior. Children are shifted from one life of misery to another and in some countries, half of all girls are married by the age of 18.

If young girls are even given the opportunity to attend school, they tend to be pulled out to soon enter a life of matrimony.  They are deprived of their basic rights to education, and because they are so young and married, they face premature pregnancy and run the risk numerous complications, including death. In many developing countries, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for adolescent girls. And those who are fortunate to survive are still vulnerable to HIV, sexual violence and physical exploitation. 

In Nicaragua, 16% of girls are married by age 15, and 50% by 18. In the autonomous North Atlantic region, 67% are married by 18. In the Dominican Republic, 11% are married by 15 and 38% by 18.

Such cultural norms lead to a lack of full economic opportunities for women, because they are seen as an unworthy investment and they are devalued.

A 12 year old child bride in Afghanistan, Lila, poured petrol over herself and set herself on fire five months after being married. Luckily she survived. From her hospital bed she whispered that she wanted to kill herself because her 17-year-old husband had constantly beat her.

Self immolation often stems from forced marriages, abusive husbands or in-laws, poverty, shame, ignorance, and little education. Women and girls who immolate themselves are not aware of their rights and feel the only way out of the torture, abuse and unhappiness is through committing suicide through actions like setting fire to themselves or by digesting poison. 

According to Medica Mondiale, an international women’s rights group, about 85 percent of women who die as a result of their burns perish because they either are not taken to the hospital, or have not been taken fast enough, out of shame. Those who do survive face social exclusion by their communities.

Can you imagine anything worse happening to a woman after she has been subjected to the torture of having her genitalia removed, becoming a bride who hasn’t even hit the age of puberty, and then because she is so mentally and physically underdeveloped, she sets herself on fire only to be a disfigured member of a judgmental and unsupportive society who sees her as nothing but an outcast that has brought shame to her family?

Well many women and girls cannot only imagine, but actually become a victim once again -to something worse- this time to an honor killing. Honor killings take place because people think the woman has brought shame to her family by actions she may or may not have taken.

They are called honor killings, but it is no different from a dowry death or a crime of passion all of which have the same dynamic where the woman is killed by a male relative.  This crime is carried out by people of all different cultures and religions.

Sadly, it is females in the family-mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and cousins- who commonly support the attacks.

Even when laws are created, like for instance in Turkey where honor killings are outlawed, the crime still continues to be carried out. These cultural traditions are deeply imbedded in societies where it will take time and a lot of grassroots work to transform the mentality that it is okay to murder to preserve your honor.  

Respected guests, we may feel that these challenges women are facing are far from home, but we are mistaken. The fact of the matter is we may be witness to these crimes against humanity and not even be aware of it. Today, there are more slaves in the world than during any other time in history. Human trafficking, also known as modern day slavery, affects every region of the world. Today, there are over 27 million slaves globally.

I want to share with you a couple of a stories outlined by a student organization at Georgetown University called Students Stopping the Trafficking of People.  These stories highlight the extent to which human trafficking occurs, from forced prostitution to forced labor, and to children overpowered to become soldiers. 

Sex Trafficking
“Neary grew up in rural Cambodia. Her parents died when she was a child. In an effort to give her a better life, her sister married her off when she was 17. Three months later, her and her husband  went to visit a fishing village. Her husband rented a room in what Neary thought was a guest house. But when she woke the next morning, her husband was gone. The owner of the house told her she had been sold by her husband for $300 and that she was in a brothel. For five years, Neary was raped by five to seven men every day. In addition to brutal physical abuse, Neary was infected with HIV and contracted AIDS. The brothel threw her out when she became sick, and she eventually found her way to a local shelter. She died of HIV/AIDS at the age of 23.”

Forced Labor
“Serena arrived from the Philippines to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. Upon her arrival, her employer confiscated her passport and, with his wife, began to beat and verbally abuse her. On one occasion, her female employer pushed her down the stairs; another time, her male employer choked her until she passed out. She was not allowed to leave the house. As her passport had been confiscated, she could not flee. Serena was driven to attempt suicide. Once at the hospital, she was able to escape from her captors. She has sought redress through the Saudi court system and is waiting for justice in a shelter.”

Child Soldiers
“Michael was 15 when he was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to serve as a combatant in the Ugandan insurgent force. During his forced service in the LRA, he was made to kill a boy who had tried to escape. He also watched another boy being hacked to death because he did not alert the guards when his friend successfully escaped”

Although human trafficking is not something we hear of often, victims are trafficked right here – to the United States.  I would like to echo a powerful story Laura Leederer from the State Department once shared with Massachusetts legislatures, in an effort to pass a state law to end this form of modern day slavery.

So this is the story of Rosa, who was trafficked from Mexico to the United States. She was 13 and waiting tables in a restaurant in a small village near Vera Cruz, Mexico. She was approached by an acquaintance of her family who told her, “You know you can make ten times more money in the U.S. doing what you’re doing here. I know someone who can find you a job in Texas-you can send money home to your family, you can have your own life. If you don’t like the job we’ll get you a new one. If you’re homesick, we’ll bring you back across the border. You can’t lose.”

Rosa was young and hopeful. She asked her parents if she could go but they forbid her. But she wanted a better life than what she had, and so, against her parents and friends’ warnings, she accepted the offer. She was told to go to the main hotel in town on Friday evening.

When she got there, a car was waiting, with several other young girls in it from other neighboring villages. They drove into the desert as far as they could toward the U.S. border. There, they met up dozens more young women and girls from other towns in Mexico.

On the ground were backpacks and water bottles. They were told to put the backpacks on their backs, and then they began to walk. They walked four days and four nights – through the desert, across the Rio Grande, and into Brownsville, Texas, where they were picked up by a white van and driven across Texas, across Louisiana, and into rural Florida. They were dropped off in a rural town, in front a series of trailers. They were ordered out and the van drove away.

A big, burly looking man came out and told them, “I’ve just purchased you. Now you work for me.” A little later an older woman took them to one of the trailers. She told Rosa that she was in a brothel and that she would have to buy her freedom by sexually servicing men.

Rosa was young. She was a virgin. She was Catholic. She knew what the woman was telling her was bad-a sin. She began to cry and begged to be taken to a restaurant to work. But she was told, “There are no restaurant jobs-only this.” When she refused to do what they said, the burly man brought out three other men who took her into one of the trailers and gang-raped her to induct her into the “business.” Then they locked her in the trailer without food and water until she succumbed.

For the next six months she was a prisoner. She was forced to service 10 or more men a day. On the weekends it was as many as 20-30 men. The men bought a ticket, which was a condom, for $20. But they often didn’t use it.

Twice Rosa was impregnated and twice forced to have an abortion. And twice forced back into the brothel the next day. She was beaten if she refused a customer’s demands. She was guarded twenty-four hours a day, even when she went to the bathroom. She was passed around at private parties that the trafficking ring held in the evenings and on weekends.

Once she and several others tried to escape. They were caught and pistol-whipped around the head and face in front of the other girls-to deter them all from trying that. Shortly after the second abortion and this beating, Rosa became sick and felt crazy. In order to keep her functioning in the brothel, the traffickers gave her drugs and alcohol to numb her pain.

She was only “rescued” when one of the young women jumped out of a second story window at one of the private parties and ran to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor called the local police. The police called the INS and FBI, and a sting operation was set up. Over 40 young women and girls were rescued and 14 traffickers were arrested.

A medical doctor examined Rosa. She had several STDs; she had broken bones that hadn’t healed properly from the beatings; she had pelvic inflammatory disease and scar tissue from the forced abortions. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol, was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, including nightmares, flashbacks, depression, and suicidal tendencies. In short, she was physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually broken.

To make matters worse, when Rosa was discovered, the U.S. didn’t have a trafficking law. Instead of really rescuing Rosa, the police arrested her and the other young women and children, and locked them up in jail along with the traffickers. We simply didn’t have a victim-centered approach to trafficking and did not know how to handle the case.

Later Rosa and the other victims were taken from jail to a battered wives shelter. There they were told not to talk about what had really happened to them, but to pretend they were victims of spousal abuse because that was the shelter’s mandate. To make matters worse, Rosa wanted to see a priest, but was instead taken to a psychiatrist because that was the medical model this shelter had for addressing violence against women.

80% of those victims are women and girls who are mostly forced into a sex trade.  I can go on and give you hundreds of more stories similar to that of Rosa, Neary, Serena, and Michael.  There are stories of everyday all American teenagers who fall victim to trafficking by solicitors in the mall who claim they want to recruit the girls for modeling. 

According to a report published by the C.I.A., 45,000-50,000 women and children are brought to the United States as slaves every year and the majority of these victims come from Latin American and Southeast Asia.  Keep in mind that these are numbers for those who are accounted for. It’s still undetermined how many are trafficked WITHIN national borders annually.

Child predators from the U.S. and around the world can travel to Cambodia and easily have arranged for them a night or even a few days with girls as young as 4 and 5. 

So what can we do? If we don’t have the means to be on the grounds to help I believe the very least we can do is help in raising awareness about these issues. Write about them, speak about them, and involve your communities so that they can care about them.  Everyone would love to live in a world where they don’t want to think about the horrible things that go on but what makes us better than those who commit the crimes? If we’ve got the means to think, learn, listen, teach, and take action, we are just as responsible and should feel compassion to at MINIMUM raise awareness about the challenges women continue to face and to look for solutions. 

But women shouldn’t be the only ones who feel obligated to help their sisters in desperation. The role of men is also very critical as it is men in most of these cases who subject women to the atrocities they face. They often are just as oblivious on the rights of women as women themselves are. 

Some of us may take literacy for granted in a world where 800 million illiterate adults exist. Two thirds of them are women because girls are not seen as worthy to have an education, or have no other way of life other than doing domestic chores.  And although women produce half of the world’s food, they happen to be 70% of the world’s poorest people.

 In some of these trials women are facing – it’s because they are told this is what their religion mandates. But here is where we must think outside of the box. Is it really what their religion says or are these cruel actions being justified by uncivil as well as civil society, particularly the media, as being a religious practice?

The journey towards obtaining equal rights and equal opportunity has never been an easy one, neither for men or women. But because these challenges continue to exist for the majority of women around the world, we must educate ourselves, raise awareness, and take concrete action to change lives for the better.   

We must be aware that women and girls are not suffering from a religion of violence, but a CULTURE of violence.

Even then, what can victims do with laws they don’t even know exist, or are not enforced?

Many of you will become attorneys, business executives, politicians, leaders of a non-profit organizations, and members of the media.  In an ideal world where rule of law has the potential to positively ensure the human rights of its citizenry, including half of its population – women, you must ensure that these laws not only exist on paper, but they are put into practice.  What will your role be to hold those who are accountable for human rights violations and how can you make a difference to the women and girls most in need? 

We must not only create solutions to empower women, but we must hold human rights violators accountable, whether they be the village elder who performs a female circumcision, a husband who orders the death of his wife for wanting a divorce, the woman who is selling sex slaves in her home, or the parliamentarian who creates amnesty for war criminals. 

How can we expect victims to stand for their rights when their perpetrators roam freely and with impunity?

Enforcing human rights law and putting them into practice is an enormous challenge. However, on a day when there is much information and so many resources at our fingertips, and people like yourselves to fight for such causes, there is no excuse for allowing human rights violations against women and girls to continue as they have on this level.   Please remember how hard women themselves all over the world have fought and even died for their rights.  Please join them in celebrating their victories.

I hope my being here with you today was successful in helping you to think outside of the box and that you are able to understand how to change rhetoric into action. Thank you.