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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Paula Dobriansky
Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
March 10, 2004

Paula Dobriansky
Hi, I'm delighted to be here this morning and look forward to taking your questions.

katelyn, from new york writes:
What is the Women's Council and what do they do?

Paula Dobriansky
The U.S.-Afghan Women's Council was established in January 2002 by Presidents Bush and Karzai. The Council is the only U.S. public private partnership that is aimed entirely at assisting Afghan women. It brings together Americans and Afghans seeking to help integrate women into Afghan society enabling them to play leadership roles in the political and economic life of their country.

The Council supports education, and literacy programs, jobs skills training, microfinance, leadership capacity building, women's resource centers and inititiaves that enhance women's political and economic opportunities. Specifically, it mobilizes private resources to ensure that Afghan women gain the skills and education deprived to them under years of Taliban misrule.

The Council meets twice a year alternating between Washington, D.C. and Kabul.

I am one of the co-chairs of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. The other two co-chairs Minister Sarabi who is Minister of Women's Affairs and Foreign Minister Abdullah.

Noreen, from Texas writes:
Was anything decided at the meeting? What is the next step in terms of education and women's health?

Paula Dobriansky
The recent U.S.-Afghan Women's Council meeting in Kabul resulted in a number of specific initiatives. We agreed to set up an American school in Kabul this fall as well as a women's teacher training institute.

In addition, the Council has supported the building of 17 women resource centers to be located throughout Afghanistan.

Support for these women resource centers have come from USAID (US Agency for International Development) and Japan and private sector support. Specifically, AOL/Time Warner committed some 60,000 dollars in support of the building of the women's resource center.

In addition, we announced at the Council meeting a $5 million program known as REACH which specifically provides support for midwivery programs in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has the highest maternal mortality rate. These programs will assist Afghans in grappling with this very difficult situation.

There were a number of private sector initiatives announced including $10,000 Rockefeller philanthropy combined with 75,000 to support women's leadership training. These monies with help, in particular, independent association of women judges in Afghanistan.

Daimler Chrysler contributed $25,000 to construct another 5 community banks to support microfinance loans for women in Herat province.

One more example, PBS put forth $20,000 to buy the rights to broadcast the film "Afghanistan Unveiled" and contributed video camera equipment, laptop computers and microphone and training materials for Afghan journalists at AINA.

In addition, we reaffirmed the US long term commitment to Afghanistan through its reconstruction and development. Specifically we want to see a democratic, prosperous, peaceful stable Afghanistan. And we through the council and its work and initiatives, support women who have a vital and integral role to play in the future reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Katherine writes:
Do you try to involve yourself in women's issues like the U.S-Afghan Women's Council? Do you have any suggestions for women who similarly would like to find a way to help?

Paula Dobriansky
Yes. I'm very actively involved in the work of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. As co-chair of the Council along with Minister Sarabi and Minister Abdullah, we set the agenda and we agree on the kinds of priorities that need to be addressed.

Minister Sarabi identified education, economic empowerment, political empowerment and healthcare as being the most crucial issues facing Afghan women today.

Accordingly the work of the U.S.-Afghan Council seeks to address those needs identified by the Afghan Women's Ministry. We would welcome your support and others who would like to help Afghan women. Specifically, the Council has established a gift fund. You can either donate to the gift fund which supports programs in the four priority areas I mentioned, or you can contact our office of International Women's Issues at the State Department to get further information on ways you can help.

Let me give you the number that you can call to contact the International Women's Issues Office -- 202 312 9664 and the senior coordinator is Charlotte Ponticelli.

Rosina, from Hampton, VA writes:
Are the roles of women changing in Afghanistan? Are women allowed to have professions?

Paula Dobriansky
Yes. The roles of women are changing quite dramatically in Afghanistan. While there is much work that remains to be done, we have seen marked improvement in the current situation in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

Women have taken on many different professions. Women have gone back to work. There are women journalists. There are women who started up a women's magazine. There are women doctors.

In fact, the Minister of Health is a woman. There are women who are the heads of non-governmental organizations. A woman is the head of the human rights commission.

Also, quite significantly, in the recent December Constitutional Loya Jirga meeting, women participated actively and were able to question leaders openly and discuss gender related issues. In fact, almost 20 percent of the 500 delegates of the Constitutional Loya Jirga were women.

As a result of that meeting, women's representation as guaranteed by the Afghan Constitution some 25 percent represented in the Lower House of Parliament and some 16 percent in the Upper House.

So, yes women have taken on very pivotal roles in the reconstruction and future development of Afghanistan. However, there still is much work that remains to be done in ensuring that the rights of women are protected and that these changes are representative of Afghanistan as a whole -- not only in urban centers.

Colleen, from Conn. writes:
What is the situation involving political participation of women? How to Afghan men feel about it?

Paula Dobriansky
More than 200 women participated in the 2002 emergency Loya Jirga that established the current government. The central government then named several women to Cabinet positions and other areas of responsibility.

The Minister of Health and the Minister of Women's Affairs are women. And the head of the Human Rights Commission is a woman. The drafting committee of the constitutional commission set up prior to the Constitutional Loya Jirga included 7 women out of 35 members.

And women actively participated in the December 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga which resulted in the establishment of equal rights to all citizens of Afghanistan -- both men and women.

The new constitution also reserves seats specifically some 25 percent in the Lower House of Parliament for women. I think that we are witnessing some significant changes in Afghanistan where women have become very politically involved in the future deliberations of Afghanistan, its governmental structure and other political decisions being taken.

These developments have been welcomed by President Karzai and by many other Afghan ministers who are men as well as male officials throughout Afghanistan.

However, there still remains reservations by some Afghan men.

Maria, from Michigan writes:
How has technology played a role in underdeveloped countries? When introducing computers and the Internet in Afghanistan, how is it received by the public?

Paula Dobriansky
Technology plays an important role in the developing world. Specifically in Afghanistan, technology has benefitted women. For example, at one of the women resource centers that we have constructed in Kabul, a number of professional Afghan women took computer training courses.

We then brought those professional women to the United States to take additional courses in computers as well as leadership and governance training. They indicated to us how crucial it is for their own development to be computer literate and to be able to converse with others outside of Afghanistan through computer technology.

In fact, one of the members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council is in daily contact by computer with a young Afghan woman journalist. This has resulted in what really constitutes a computer mentoring relationship.

The American on the Afghan Women's Council has provided valuable advice and suggestions to the Afghan journalist. We want to strive to broaden the kind of technology and technological needs of Afghanistan.

Barbara, from Grand Rapids, Michigan writes:
How and where do you want to promote freedom for women around the world?

Paula Dobriansky
The Bush Administration is committed to promoting basic human rights for women worldwide. This is a goal and objective that is integral to our overall foreign policy.

President Bush in fact, has underscored the non-negotiable demands for human dignity for all people everywhere. And this includes respect for women.

Many of our programs support this fundamental goal.

The U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, the Middle East partnership initiative, our human rights efforts, our democracy building programs, and HIV/AIDS initiative and many other programs which have been supported by the U.S. government.

Courtney, from Camden, NY writes:
How are the woman in Iraq handling the freedom they have recieved from the war? Thank you for your time to read and hopefully answer my guestion.

Paula Dobriansky
The Iraqi women are handling their newfound freedom very aggressively. Already, Iraqi women have moved to participate in the political, economic and social reconstruction of their country.

Many are starting to speak freely in local town hall meetings, municipal councils, national conferences and other organized events.

The Governing Council and the Interim Council established have included three women as members. A woman is heading the Ministry of Public Works.

What we are witnessing is women in Iraq being involved in the future of Iraq, politically, economically and socially at all levels.

We welcome their spirit and we encourage and support them.

I had the opportunity to visit Baghdad last July. I attended a roundtable called the voice of women in Iraq. The women who attended were very outspoken about what changes they want to see in Iraqi society.

These women represented all ethnicities of Iraq, the different religions and they were from different geographical locations. We plan to continue our strong support of Iraqi women as they go forward in their very active political engagement.

On March 8, International Women's Day, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced our Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative and the US Iraqi Women's Network. We're contributing $10 million to support in democracy initiatives to help and train Iraqi women and we also seek to establish a network that will bring Iraqi and American women together in support of the goals identified by Iraqi women.

Michael, from Powell, TN writes:
What are some of the rights women now have in Afghanistan that they did not have under the Muslimg Taliban?

Paula Dobriansky
Since the fall of the Taliban, there has been a marked improvement in the role of women in Afghanistan. Women are going back to work, girls are attending school and women have assumed positions of leadership in government.

Afghan women themselves are taking the lead in bettering their own lives.

During the time of the Taliban, the fundamental rights of women were denied. Women now are guaranteed equal rights and duties before the law as a result of the recent December Constitutional Loya Jirga meeting.

So, although much work remains to be done, we nevertheless have witnessed a significant improvement in the current situation of women in Afghanistan.

Holly, from Long Island writes:
How does your job differ from Secretary Powell's position? Where do your jobs overlap? Is your job in some ways more specialized?

Thanks for your hard work and service.

Paula Dobriansky
Secretary of State Colin Powell is my boss. As Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, I am responsible for overseeing four bureaus and three offices. The bureaus which I oversee include the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement; and the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science and the Bureau of Population Refugee and Migration.

The three offices which I oversee include: the Office of International Women's Issues; the Office of Trafficking-in-Persons; and the Office of Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary.

I am also the Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues.

What ties my area of responsibility together is that all of these bureaus and offices deal with transnational issues and global issues. In that sense, my job focuses particular areas but areas in which we interact and work with many other countries.

Laird, from Salt Lake City writes:
In parts of Europe, in Germany and Prague, for example, some people say that there's still a reminiscent feeling of the past dictatorships and regimes.

Do you think this is true for formerly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and will be for awhile -- as a true democracy takes time to take root and fully develop?

Paula Dobriansky
Democracy does take time to take root and develop. Our approach is to provide as much assistance as possible to those countries like Afghanistan who want to see democracy take root.

Our assistance is not only in support of elections but also toward the development of a civil society. We give assistance to non-governmental organizations, to a multitude of journalists to encourage as much variety in journalism, to ministries in support of their reconstruction programs and support for educational opportunities.

We work with emerging democracies and encourage them to provide their advice and expertise as emerging democracies to countries like Afghanistan.

In encouraging democracy to take root, our approach does not entail picking up a specific model like the American model and transplanting on the soil on another country. There is a vital need to work with the people of a developing democracy; to support many of their needs and to encourage others to join in on the effort as well.

Chris, from Chicago, IL writes:
When there are extreme cultural differences between the U.S. and Afghanistan, how does the U.S. strike the careful balance between ensuring freedom and not imposing U.S. culture?

Paula Dobriansky
Our approach in democracy building and encouraging freedom and democracy abroad is not to impose merely the American model.

We do not believe that the American model should be picked up and transplanted onto the soil of another country. For example, in Afghanistan, we are working quite actively and fully with the various ministries to identify what are their needs and what are the best approaches to address their needs.

In addition, we have encouraged other countries that are newly emerged democracies, like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and others, to render their advice and suggestions in the building of democracy and freedom in Afghanistan;

What is essential is that there is communication and understanding that although there are universal benchmarks of what constitutes a democracy that nevertheless there is a need to understand and appreciate that there are different historical backdrops, as well as cultural considerations.

There is a universal declaration of human rights which is a standard for all countries. Although there should be respect for difference of cultures, culture in and of itself is not a rational for human rights abuses.

As President Bush has stated clearly, we believe in a nonnegotiable demand for human dignity for all people everywhere.

Paula Dobriansky
I've enjoyed talking with all of you today. Thank you very much for your very thoughtful questions and look forward to the next time.

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