Speech at symposium on Advancing Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan

Oslo, 23 November 2014

Check against delivery

Excellencies, distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Norway and this symposium on Advancing Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan.

It is a particular honour to welcome First Lady Rula Ghani and all Afghan participants from the government, parliament and civil society. I also welcome the students joining us live from Kabul University and the American University in Kabul.

This conference is a concrete expression of our joint commitment to help Afghanistan secure and advance the position of women in the country. Partnership is crucial. I know that we all share the conviction, based on experience, that improving the situation for girls and women is one of the best ways to contribute to the development of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has achieved considerable and concrete progress since 2001.

In 2001 almost no girls were enrolled in school, whereas about 40 % of Afghan girls attend school today. Just 1 million children went to school in 2001, whereas 9 million children attend school today. Only last week a new school was opened in the Faryab province with Norwegian support, giving 1000 girls the opportunity to go to school.

Millions of Afghan girls are now being taught in schools around the country, and many girls are entering universities. Altogether there are 210 000 teachers in government-run schools, and more than 170 000 of them have received training with international support over the last few years. Teachers are role models for both girls and boys, and it is therefore significant that the majority of the 72 000 students training to be teachers today are women.

One very positive sign is that nearly a third of the members of the Afghan parliament are women. Successful female entrepreneurs are now shattering old stereotypes.

Since 2003, GDP per capita has been steadily increasing in Afghanistan, from USD 193 in 2003 to USD 626 in 2013. Life expectancy is higher than ever.  Infant mortality dropped from 115 to 74 deaths per 1,000 live births from 2002 to 2012. Maternal mortality has decreased by over two thirds between 2002 and 2010. 

This is not to say that the future will be without challenges. The position of women in Afghanistan today is not yet secure, and discrimination is widespread. Many children attend school, but still don’t learn how to read and write. Sadly, even today, less than 20 % of adult women in Afghanistan are literate. Afghanistan has enormous untapped potential in this respect.

In Norway, we have learned from our own history that increasing gender equality and improving the population’s level of education have immediate and lasting effects on the economy. Access to primary and higher education has been – and remains – crucial to development in Norway, as it is in Afghanistan.

Education is both a right a means of securing an income, but it is also an end in itself. Educated women can increase both their household’s income and the country’s income. Educated mothers are more likely to motivate their children to go to school, and assist them in doing so. Literacy improves the health situation of the whole family.  

This is why we are doubling Norway’s support for global education over the next 4 years, with education for girls as a top priority.

In Afghanistan, education – and education for girls in particular – has long been a priority for our cooperation. The focus has been on basic education. However, one special area in which I am proud to say that Norway has made a significant contribution is in the training of midwives. A considerable percentage of all registered midwives in Afghanistan have received their training thanks to Norwegian assistance.

As co-chair of the UN Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group, I will continue to stress the importance of improving the situation for vulnerable women and girls around the globe.

Ensuring the full and equal participation of women and girls – in families, at the workplace, in government and in politics – is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do.

A new chapter in Afghanistan’s future is now being written, and let me once again stress that no progress can be made without including women. Afghan women must be able to live their lives free from violence and discrimination, they must have access to education and health services and they must be able to take part in economic and political life.

We are here today to find ways to maintain and advance the progress that has already been made. I am pleased that so many people have come from Afghanistan to discuss this important topic, as well as representatives of civil society, partner countries and organisations. Without your tireless efforts to improve the lives of Afghan women and men and to hold us accountable, we would not be where we are today.

I am particularly pleased to be co-hosting this event with the Afghan Government. President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah have said that the rights and opportunities of women are a top priority for the Unity Government. Their leadership is crucial for achieving progress. Political solutions that involve all groups, including women and minorities, are important for Afghanistan’s stability and unity.

Norway and the other partners are here to tell the people of Afghanistan today that we stand by you and will support you in your efforts to empower women. We will continue to support you in your work for equal rights and opportunities. Likewise, we will work alongside you to secure stability and development. International support must reflect Afghan priorities.

Norway will continue to provide a high level of development assistance, provided that Afghanistan fulfils its commitments. The main areas receiving support from Norway are education, governance, and rural development, with gender equality and the fight against corruption as crosscutting priorities. Norway will continue to provide financing for the security sector and will send military personnel to participate in NATO’s Resolute Support Mission from 2015.

We are here today to listen to the Afghans who are participating at this conference as we stake out the course ahead. The key questions to be answered are:

  • what are the main priorities?
  • how can the new Government address them? and
  • how can the international community best support the new Government’s efforts?

We all look forward hearing the recommendations of First Lady Ghani, representatives of the Afghan Government and representatives of civil society.

My hope is that today’s conference will help place women’s rights where they belong – at the centre of all policies that have a bearing on Afghanistan’s future.

Thank you.