DeGette Speaks Out After Fact-Finding Trip to Afghanistan

Wendy Norris

Rep. Diana DeGette talks to Wendy Norris about a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, the Afghan law that would have legalized marital rape, and the extraordinary lengths Afghan women go to access education.

The erosion of human rights in war-torn Afghanistan spurred Denver U.S.
Rep. Diana DeGette, a vocal critic of the Iraq War, last week to
support a $91.3 billion supplemental budget, that largely funds an $85 billion military spending package for the dual battlefront there and in Iraq.

The budget bill, however, comes at a delicate time for U.S.-Afghan relations.

DeGette spoke to Wendy Norris about a historic
fact-finding mission to Kabul and the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan by a bipartisan
delegation of six women members of Congress. The trip was organized
following international outcry when the Afghan government passed a
proposed law in February that legalizes marital rape and violates
fundamental women’s rights.

Wendy Norris: What were your impressions on the ground in Afghanistan during your May 9-10 trip?

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DeGette: It was a very eye-opening trip. We met with our military leaders and a number of troops but we also
met with some of the female members of [the Afghan] parliament and we
met with some of the leaders of the NGOs (non-governmental
organizations) that are operating down there.

I think the high point of the trip was when we went down to Kandahar
Province. We actually went to one of the villages and met with the
women there. This is the Pashtun area, the most conservative area of
Afghanistan, and we were very near where a couple of months ago some girls had acid thrown in their faces when they were going to school.

What they told us really surprised us because these are the most
oppressed, religiously conservative women in the country and they go to
school everyday. There’s a school that’s been opened by USAID and some
other organizations but the school is quite far away. They told us that
they risk their lives every time they go because the extremists will
beat them or kill them when they come home.

And they also told us that sometimes they get beaten by their
husbands when they come home. Yet they’re committed to going to school
and they’re committed to learning and bettering their lives. The life
expectancy in Afghanistan is forty-four. Most of the [students] looked
like they were maybe in their twenties or thirties.

When we asked them ‘What do you need?’ they said they need to learn
how to use computers which completely shocked us. The State Dept.
representative said even though they have computers at the school
there’s no electricity.

We asked them when do you think this oppression of women is going to
end and they said when the men with the long, gray beards are gone.
What they meant is that it’s a generational thing.

To us, they were so courageous.

WN: Former U.S. Ambassador to
Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, while on a swing through Denver at an
Institute for International Education/Denver World Affairs Council
luncheon last December, was quite candid about his concerns that the U.S. and NATO have failed in delivering Afghan humanitarian and reconstruction aid. Is that your impression?

DeGette: What we did was we went in and drove out the
Taliban and then we ignored them for seven years. We were focused on
the wrong country.

WN: It makes me wonder if the anti-women’s civil rights Shiite Personal Status Law that was passed by the Afghan Parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai is an outgrowth of that neglect?

DeGette: We talked to the parliamentarians about
this. It was part of a much larger law. When the Afghan women leaders
and the international community cried out President Karzai said that he
didn’t know that it was in there.

The women leaders told us that they were in [Karzai’s] office two
weeks before he signed the bill and showed him exactly where it was.

People think that because [the president] didn’t know [the language]
was there it’s not going to take effect. The way Afghan law works is it
passes the parliament, it gets signed and then it has to be published.
It is sitting there right now and it has not been published. But these
sections have not been removed so they could still go into law. The
parliamentarians are concerned [about] the potential that after the August
Afghan elections that President Karzai might let the laws be published.

WN: Is there any movement to try to overturn this before or after it is published and enacted?

DeGette: The congressional women’s delegation to Afghanistan and I sent a letter to President Karzai demanding that he rescind those sections. The Afghan women are quite militant and vocal that it need to be rescinded.

I think you will see a strong movement but I think the danger is
that the international community because the president says that he
didn’t know about this law thinks it’s not going to take effect.

We’re requesting a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and we’re not going to let this go.

We can’t let our mistake over the last seven years of abandoning
Afghanistan color the necessity to make an effort to stabilize that
country. The Afghan citizens do not support the Taliban. But if the
Taliban comes in and threatens them they’re not going to resist because
they don’t want to be killed.

Our job really is to stabilize the south and the east of the country
and train the Afghan police forces and the military. And at the same
time work on all of the international aid to build a civil society to
give these poor women the electricity and the computers that they need.

WN: What are we going to do in rolling
back this seven years of neglect in providing the basic health and
reproductive health care that the girls and women need, especially in
the conservative outlying areas?

DeGette: That was the other thing that struck us
that all of the women that we talked to had seven, eight, nine or ten
kids. I was talking to one of my colleagues about this. We want to give
them the reproductive services that they need but we also need to be
culturally sensitive.

WN: One of the thorniest problems that
we face, particularly with President Obama implementing a new 21,000
troop surge to Afghanistan, are we inadvertently undermining Afghan
women’s rights by fighting for the sovereignty of the country while the
Loya Jirga makes abhorrent law, like the Shiite Personal Status Law?

DeGette: It’s certainly a difficult situation in
Afghanistan. They’ve just come off of 30 years of war. The women
leaders who we met with in Kabul and the other women seem to welcome
the concept of U.S. troops providing security and fight back the
extremists while they’re trying to put their society together.

We also met with leaders of the Afghan Army and that was pretty
interesting too. That’s the thing I’m not sure we realize it’s not like
Iraq in that we’re not conquering the Afghan people. We’re really
trying to drive out the extremists which, in the end, is in our
national security interest if we can keep the Taliban out of there and
stop that breeding ground.

WN: Any last thoughts on what the U.S. media can do to better inform the American public about what’s happening in Afghanistan?

DeGette: I think we need to let people know that
the women and girls are hungry to learn. Despite daily personal risk
that they’re going to school and we need to work hand-in-hand with the
Afghan government and security forces to give them that opportunity.

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