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Cherie Blair Press Conference On Taliban & Women

Press conference by Clare Short, Secretary of State for Overseas Development, Ms Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education and Mrs Cherie Blair at 10 Downing Street on Monday 19 November.


Well, good afternoon everybody, and welcome to Downing Street. I am very grateful to be here today. I was delighted to be asked to join Clare and Estelle, but more especially to join our important guests, women from Afghanistan, who have come to our country as refugees.

During my legal career, much of which has been spent in specialising in Human Rights issues and issues about women's equality, and certainly in the last four years alongside Tony since he became Prime Minister, I have had the privilege of meeting many women around the world, many of whom have suffered injustice and cruelty and have fought against that injustice and cruelty. But I don't think I can recall repression or cruelty quite as horrifying as that joyless regime that the Taliban have imposed on the people of Afghanistan, and the Al-Qu'eda network which supports it.

Just earlier on we have been sitting in another room here in Downing Street and I have been talking with the two women with me today and also some other women here in the audience, just about their experiences, of what their life was like in Afghanistan before they left, and what their life has been like since, and it has been both shocking and inspiring to hear about their struggle for justice and equality and to hear how much they still care about what happens in their country and how much they want to do to make things better for the people who are still there.

We all know that the Taliban is a regime that denies all its citizens even the most basic of human rights, and for women that has been particularly acute. Things that women in our country take for granted, just to be able to enjoy life publicly with our families, to dress as we please. All of these things are forbidden. In Afghanistan if you wear nail polish, you could have your nails torn out. Well, that may seem a trivial example, but it is an example, nonetheless, of the oppression of women, and nothing more I think symbolises the oppression of women than the burkha which is a very visible sign of the role of women in Afghanistan and we had some interesting discussions about what it is like to wear a burkha and how difficult it makes just ordinary, everyday living.

But what I would really like to focus on today are the terrible injustices against women, and it is not just about what we wear, or even something as trivial as nailpolish. The women in Afghanistan are entitled as women in every country are to have the same hopes and aspirations for ourselves and for our daughters. For good education, a career outside the home, if they want one. The right to health care, and of course most importantly the right for their voices to be heard.

Wahida who is here with me today was a head-teacher in a girls' school in Kabul. And she can remember a time when Afghanistan women could take their place in society. When they were educated, and indeed rose to all layers in many professions including becoming MPs. Also here today is Saba, who is a young law student in the UK now, but she grew up in Kabul, and came here in her early teens after the death of several members of her family. She witnessed a lot of violence and had to re-establish herself here in our country as an asylum seeker, which is not an easy task. In fact she was so passionate about her ambition to become a lawyer that she was actually reluctant to come here today because she was worried that it would mean missing out on a lecture. However I am glad to say that her tutors agreed that it was a worthwhile reason for her to be excused to come here today, but what she does remind us of is the whole hidden talent and potential that is lying unexploited and neglected in her troubled country. I know that the women here today and our guests want to speak to you about their lives, and Estelle and Clare are also going to give you more details about what we here in this country are going to do to start the slow process of opening up opportunities again for women, and indeed for men, in Afghanistan.

I would just like to make one final point myself. In my experience as a professional woman, a mother and somebody who has been on the margins of the political world, all communities and the wider societies in which they exist, work more smoothly and productively when women are involved and have a voice. But for women to make that contribution they need opportunities, they need self-esteem and they need this esteem in the eyes of their society and of the world. The women who are here today prove that the women in Afghanistan still have a spirit in them which belies their unfair, downtrodden image. But we here need to help free that spirit, and give them back their voice at home, so that they can help build the better Afghanistan that we all want to see.

So, with that hope in mind I would like first of all ask Wahida to say a few words about her experiences as a teacher in Afghanistan, and then Alia is going to say a few words.


I was working as a teacher at Malalai (phon.) High School. Malalai was the first girls school established in Afghanistan. I taught at Malalai School for 10 years and 2,500 students were studying at this school with the help of 200 teachers. As you know, for the last 5 years, the Taliban turned Afghanistan into a hell for Afghan people and particularly Afghan women. They have committed the most brutal crimes against humanity. Part of their crime, we can point to the retraction of educational system. As soon as they took power they started shutting down all the primary and secondary education for girls. As a result just in Kabul 103,000 girl students were deprived of education, 7,800 teachers forced to stay at home. At the same time 4,000 girls were expelled from Universities. At the same time most of the boys also left education due to lack of proper educational system and supporting their families. For the reorganisation and rebuilding education and school buildings we desperately and urgently need international assistance, otherwise ....with empty hands and lack of internal resources we cannot, and we won't be able to take a single step for this great goal. Thank you.


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Alia ..... and I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. I finished my High School and I went to the University and I finished University. And then I became a maths teacher in the .... ....... High School. After 10 years I had to leave the High School and I went to Dusti (phon. ) High School which is a mixed boy and girls school. It was nearby my house and I was afraid of the Mujahadeen because they threw rockets and bombing. So I was a maths teacher for 5 years in Dusti High School, and then, after that, because I have got six children and they are all girls and I couldn't live in Afghanistan, so I left Afghanistan in 1996 and I came here as a refugee. And I didn't stay at home like a refugee and housewife. I did lots of different courses and colleges in the North London University, and now I am working as a projects examiner with one of the examination boards and also as a teacher ... in .... High School and I hope in the future I will become a maths teacher in this country and then, when we have peace in Afghanistan and this situation turns up, and I could go there I would be grateful to go to Afghanistan and continue my job. I wouldn't go into details and I don't want to say anything because Wahida said everything.


Well, thank you for that and thank you for listening to us. We now are going to leave the stage to Clare and Estelle who I think are going to give us information about practical means that we, in the British Government, are going to pursue in order to help with this very important fight for women and indeed for all the people in Afghanistan.


Thank you Cherie. As you all know, in Afghanistan we are making progress on the military, political and humanitarian front, but there is still a lot to do, and things are not completely settled and we are all determined to move as quickly as possible to restore and improve the humanitarian situation, and then start to reconstruct the country and reopen the schools, and get girls back to school. As you will know, six million people in Afghanistan are dependent on food aid trucked in by the UN and also blankets and health kits. The International Red Cross has been providing some health care across the country and is ready to move in because obviously ill-health, suffering, and the country is littered with landmines so there is lots and lots of disability quite apart from the suffering from the present shortages and conflict.

The World Food Programme has managed admirably to keep food moving through this period of crisis and is now ready to start returning people and supplying food for work. It was the biggest employer of people in Afghanistan before the crisis and this is community by community, particularly under the leadership of women, looking for communities to say what they would like to rebuild: is it irrigation, is it the school, is it a road? And then providing food so that the community can start to restore themselves and also to get back to where it was before the crisis, and the UK Government is providing a lot of help to the World Food Programme in this to provide food for schools. But the food was provided previously on the condition that boys and girls could go to school and when the Taliban made it impossible for girls to go to school, then the World Food Programme wasn't willing to continue to supply food, otherwise they would be propping up the policy of excluding girls from school.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. One in four children die before the age of five. Maternal mortality rates are some of the worst in the world. Life expectancy is 44 years and Taliban rule has made all of this much worse. Illiteracy is one of the highest in the world. 90% of girls are illiterate. This must be a tragedy for you when you think of the progress you were making, and 60% of boys. And as Wahida said, when the Taliban took Kabul in 1996 they closed 63 girls schools and more than 100,000 girls were immediately thrown out of school. And then of course they ordered that women couldn't teach, so 150,000 boys were thrown out of school, the University was shut down, 10,000 students sent home, 4,000 of whom were women. So some women were managing to be educated. Not right across the country, but in the cities, before the Taliban took over the cities. So we are working with others. This is going to be a massive, enormously welcome task of helping to reconstruct your country, and hopefully lots of Afghan people that have been forced to flee will be able to go home and help in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. There is a plan that we have drawn up together with the international community for the first 100 days. It is available in the Library of the House of Commons. It is getting the humanitarian supplies moving, and then ... humanitarian plus, the food for work, the food for schools, getting the schools reopened. Children are hungry, so if you provide food at school, parents will send their children to school, and the World Food Programme uses a system of providing at the end of the month a can of oil for girls who have been in school. So you get girls' attendance right up quite quickly. These sort of mechanisms are used across the world and we are in place to move that.

Then we need a seamless shift from the humanitarian to reconstruction. I have just come back overnight from the World Bank Meeting in Ottawa - the delayed meeting because of the events of 11 September. The World Bank is also working on a reconstruction plan for Afghanistan. Just a word on girls' education. You all understand that it is a human right, but the development experience is that it is the most single important intervention in a country that promotes development. Obviously you should never, ever make only one intervention, but if you can get a generation of children, even just through primary education, including the girls, it brings about big systemic change. Girls who have been to school, even just five years of schooling, as they grow up they marry slightly later, have slightly less children, who are massively more likely to survive, household income is better for girls who have been to school, and they are better at getting their own children into education and getting healthcare. So if you can get a generation through, as they grow up they lift up their country. And that is the experience across the world. It is the most powerful development intervention any country can make, so obviously getting girls back to school is both the defiance of what has been done to women, but it is also a crucial investment in the future of Afghanistan.

We are also working with the north-west Frontier Province which has lots of refugees and people of the same communities to get girls' education developing there and I met recently when I was over in Pakistan with the Governor and Education Minister of the north-west Frontier Province, and he really said it all. The answer to backwardness and extremism is to educate girls. Afghanistan needs a lot of other help too, and we will be there for that, but the symbolism and the development significance of getting all those little girls back to school - that is going to be our top priority - and we are ready to move and the World Food Programme is ready to move, so we will get some urgent emergency progress and then we can start the longer term process of reconstruction.


Could I just very briefly add to what Clare and Cherie have said, that what a privilege it has been to meet the women today. I admire their tenacity and their achievements and I think it is a really good example of showing how education can make that difference. I think for many of us who are women and have the joint privilege of having the jobs that we have, I think it is almost impossible to imagine what life must be like if we are denied education and yet what we have seen in Afghanistan is deliberately that women and young girls have been denied that most basic of freedoms, the most basic of rights and that is to education. It has also made me reflect that somehow we take for granted much that we have in our own community, and we now have long years, centuries, of sustained education, of the right for all children to have an education, of investment in our schools, and year on year watching achievement grow. I think one of the things that has allowed that to happen is that we have periods of peace. And when you look at Afghanistan, and the turmoil that it has gone through, one of the casualties has been the very basic provision of education. And the irony is that, what I think Afghanistan most needs now, is a commitment to education and an educated adult workforce, the very thing that it has been denying itself over previous years. And that is why from our Department, as indeed right across Government, we want to work with Clare and with DFID, in making very clear that we want to contribute whatever expertise we have got, whatever energies we have got, whatever knowledge we have got, to see if we too can make a contribution. And clearly, Clare's Department leads in terms of their relationships with the developing world and with Afghanistan, but on this we definitely want to make sure that anything that we can offer in terms of what we have learnt, can be made available to them.

I think the most important point that Clare made, and it really needs repeating time and time again, that this isn't just about getting women educated. It is the effect it has in health and in care for families and in sustainable communities. Imagine how difficult it is for doctors and nurses and people from the United Nations going in with a health programme, if the people they are meeting can't read, can't write and haven't the background knowledge to understand what is needed in terms of health and looking after families. So investment in education, as ever, whichever country in the world you are in, whatever stage of your life you are at, is always about two things. It is about individual freedom, and it is about individual fulfilment, and it's about individual rights. But it has always got a wider impact than that. It is always the best investment that any government, any nation, can make in its own future. And we know that is true of education and learning in this country. It is even more true of a country that is coming out of a period of turmoil, in the way that Afghanistan has. And the great optimism I think of today is to talk to these young women and realise the pathways which they are on, and to listen to the determination that they have got to actually make a difference in the country where they were born.

So Clare I know that, as ever, we will continue to work on this, but on this more than ever if our Department and the experiences we have got here can help in any way, we know that we need to move quickly and we are certainly ready to do that.


In your opinion, how much amount will be needed to rehabilitate the ruin of Afghanistan?


A figure? I think it is impossible to calculate, and of course in practice it is going to be the turn of the UN, more and more humanitarian supplies, then humanitarian plus, food for work, food to re-open schools. And then starting up the economy. Right through this crisis all the food has been taken in by Afghan truckers. The whole humanitarian thing has kept going because the Afghan truckers kept the food going in. And Afghans inside have kept the distribution systems going. But then obviously major investment will be needed. And this is going to be 20 years, isn't it? So I think if you added up all of that, it would be some monumental figure, and everyone would say we can't do it, but we have got to get stuck in and get going and we will do it. We must not make the errors that were made in the past.


As we received reports that in the north in some parts of Afghanistan it is already snowing and that winter has started, how soon will you be able - because the roads have now been cu t off and you cannot send food through the roads, how will the World Food Programme be able to get food to those people who are just living on grass and are dying and there is no food for them. How will you be able practically to get food to those areas.


Actually, and I really do salute the World Food Programme for this, right through the crisis - food supplies stopped after 11 September when all the international staff were withdrawn - but they got things going again, and they reached their target up to 16 November, and six million people were being fed, even though sometimes you couldn't go into warehouses any more, so they fanned out across the country using the Afghan truckers. That doesn't mean that everyone in need was reached, but it is remarkable that the system has held up, and there are very brave Afghans who kept it all going even when they weren't allowed to use telephones to report ...... So I think that has been a remarkable achievement. At the moment the situation is full of possibility, but also dangerous, as you know. Supplies from Pakistan, which was the biggest point of bringing in food, has stopped for now because the whole situation is too unstable. Obviously we need to get those moving as soon as possible. The other routes are increasing, and there are a certain amount of stocks in the country, so as long as we can get going again it is not a disaster. And of course if Mazar becomes safe, then getting through to those people in the north becomes easier. The World Food Programme has got contingency plans for air drops of big supplies, not of the small packages that the US dropped previously but they also believe that they can do it by road, so plans are being made. Very serious plans. Yes, the snows will come but they are pretty confident, provided we get some kind of order and stability and we can use that route in, that we will be able to get more supplies through to those people.


This may look like a parliamentary question rather than a journalistic question, actually because in listening to you all speaking I have never spotted the word Islamic society in Afghanistan in any of the words mentioned by you, by Cherie Blair by the Afghani ladies, whatever. Are you in full understanding that you are dealing with an Islamic society and that Islam is not an enemy of education and that Taliban were not acting strictly according to the Islamic moderation and openness and how much of this understanding is taken into account in your programme of redevelopment in Afghanistan?


I think you have answered your own question. If we thought that Islam didn't believe in educating girls, we would have had a problem with saying with what we were saying, but because we know that that is not the case, and that is not Islamic teaching, that is not the problem. The Taliban had some sort of mediaeval notions of what life should be like that is not true to the traditions of Islam. So of course, the traditions of Afghanistan - it has been a poor country - but they had great traditions of learning and education in Herat, Kabul, and so on, and great demand for education amongst young Afghans, as there is in the north-west Frontier Province in .... in Pakistan, so the reason I didn't say it is because there isn't a problem in Islam about educating girls, so without saying all the things that aren't a problem in life, it would take too long.


You have obviously spoken today about the great suffering and injustice that was experienced by Afghanistan women under the Taliban regime. Do you feel just as strongly about women in some other Arabic countries, namely Saudi Arabia, who are also suffering from injustices as far as women's rights are concerned.


Yes, in Saudi Arabia women can't vote, I think that is a breach of the UN Convention in basic human rights. All over the world women are deprived of their rights. In the poorest countries it tends to be girls that don't go to school, often because they are kept at home in order to work and help look after the household and so on. And all over the world the programmes that we run, and the programmes that the World Bank, Africa-Asia Development Bank, and so on that we work with, are absolutely prioritising the empowerment of women and the education of girls. It is most desirable in itself, but it is actually crucial to development. Kofi Annan said this: "Poverty in the world has a woman's face. 70% of the 1.2 billion people in the world who are living in abject poverty are women and their children, and the poorest are women-headed households." So not only is it desirable, it is absolutely essential to reach the poorest and give them a better chance in life.


And to put that in a broader context as well, it is not just in developing countries that people have had to fight for women to have opportunities in education. I think that countries are at different stages in how they tackle this. And of course it is important, it is one of the key things, but throughout almost every country, if you look at the history of its education system, boys were given the opportunity to learn, succeed and go to University ahead of girls. It just happens that in some countries - the developed countries - that the battle was fought many a long year ago and has been won, but it is a battle that is fought in almost every country.


I would just like to ask in view of the collapse of the total of most of the infrastructure of the country after all these years of war, how are you going manage to get the system back to work once more. In the view of the for example the plea of the lady teachers and which is very ... in Islamic society, I think they would prefer lady teachers. They would prefer probably ladies - girls rather - education and schools. How are you managing this in the same time.


It will all be difficult, but we have other ..... Kosovo, Cambodia, East Timor. Things are so desperate, it won't be difficult to make life a bit better for people. Getting the food in, and then getting the schools open, and then getting food for work and so on. There are lots and lots of educated Afghans, as you will know, that have left the country, like these women here, there are a number of refugees in my own constituency that are here as asylum seekers, who all have a yearning to go back to Afghanistan. Now it is going to be complicated, but it is going to be a heck of a lot better than what is there now. And the UN system, and the international community help. Cambodia is moving forward. East Timor is moving forward. Kosovo is moving forward. Afghanistan is going to take time. It is a remote and very poor country, but it will move forward and this time we are going to stick with Afghanistan and help. And then there are fantastically enterprising people. The Afghan truckers are remarkable people. Because there hasn't been a tradition of much good government, there are some very self-reliant, creative people that given the chance will start to work on reconstructing the country.


My question has two parts. The first part is, why have you waited for 11 September to realise that women in Afghanistan are in real need of development and they have been denied the right. And the second part of my question is, how are you going to go about it. What is the basic strategy and under whose guidance are you going to educate the women, open the schools. Convince the Afghan people to send their girls to school. Because right now there is no government in place there.


We didn't wait. You obviously weren't listening. The World Food Programme - we have had a real struggle for years when no-one, you might have, but most people in the world didn't care about what was going in Afghanistan. The UN's engagement, the provision of food and so on, before 11 September, the UN was feeding 5 million people in Afghanistan, and we had this real battle about whether women could work for the UN, and the battle about girls' schools and the World Food Programme and the UN tried to resist the closure of girls' schools, so we have been engaged with it. It was a very difficult situation as you know. But we struggled to ensure that women continued to be employed. When the Taliban took Kabul and said that women couldn't work, as you know there were a lot of widows, as in any country where there has been a terrible lot of war. And that would have just sentenced some families to penury. And the World Food Programme negotiated that the women could run the bakeries - you know, the famous bakeries of Kabul - and the World Food Programme brings in the women that make the naans and deliver them to the widows' families and some of the disabled men's families. So we have been struggling with this. It has been wretchedly difficult, but we have been struggling. What is the strategy? I outlined the immediate. You might want to get a copy of the paper on the first 100 days and whose guidance. It will be the transitional government that the UN is negotiating the establishment of, the representative transitional government representative of all the ethnic communities of Afghanistan, that will then be recognised by the UN as the legitimate government of the country. Then the whole international system, the World Bank will be able to engage, the Asia Development Bank will be able to engage. The UN will be able fully to engage and then the humanitarian and humanitarian plus and then starting the reconstruction.


Two questions. The first is, are you confident that the Northern Alliance and other factions have a fully supportive attitude to women's education, along the lines you have been talking about. And secondly, you talked about the future in terms of education, but what is the British Government doing to press for a role for women in deciding on the transitional government in Afghanistan?


I'm not convinced, I mean I don't know anyone in the Northern Alliance myself, but I am not convinced that if I was able to ask them, that they would all be dedicated to women's and girls' education, but the country will not be able to function without the UN. As I said, five million people were dependent on feeding from the UN before 11 September of a population of around 20 million. One in four of the population of the country. And the UN will not operate except by the recognition of the principle that girls must go to school equally and so on. So there will be this invincible international system saying these are basic requirements and rights and I am pretty confident that we will be able to drive that forward. I am sure there will be a few bumps on the way. On your second question, obviously the UK government isn't forming the transitional government. It is Ambassador Brahimi with the full authority of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. But the point about the role of women in Afghanistan is fully recognised by the whole international community. And I don't know exactly what he is saying about the representation of women in politics, but women were in politics in Afghanistan before. It was an under-developed country with some sophisticated cities and some highly educated women within an unequal country, and we must get back to that as soon as possible.


First of all, as an Afghan woman I thank you and appreciate what you do for Afghan people and women in particular, and my question is that to what extent Western governments are committed to really empowering Afghan women. As you have said, we have got women politicians, women writers, lecturers, university lecturers, and they have been there, and they are active outside Afghanistan. How can we bring them back to the politics at least, to the decision-making bodies. Who is going look after that the UN will consult these women as well. You said that the British Government is not making the decisions and not involved in forming the government. Nobody is, Afghans are. But you are in the UN, is there anybody who could make sure that women are involved in the decision-making.


Yes, I promise you. This has been the same problem for the UN in East Timor, in Kosovo, in Cambodia. The rights of women in international conventions, the Convention on Equal Rights of Women has been signed by Afghanistan, but it has not been honoured, and the UN must honour its own conventions. That will be a principle of the reconstruction. I am sure there will be difficulties, but I promise you, it will be a principle. And I think we will be crying out for the whole - Afghanistan will for its educated people to return, including its women. And I will repeat to whoever it was behind, you cannot get development in a poor country without getting girls to school, and empowering women, they are the ones that are close to the communities, looking after the poorest families. You have to concentrate on listening to what they are saying in order to do things properly, and you have to get women that are capable of taking up positions in more senior (roles ?) and we will work for that, I promise you.


You mentioned the transitional government, and it will be up to them, but it could be some time before that government is formed. Meanwhile, people like General Dostum in Mazar-e-Sharif are saying that they want to re-open girls' schools, Universities, to both men and women in terms of Universities. Are you willing to work with them in the interim. And the second question is, you talk about the commitment to education for girls. Does that go beyond five years? Does that go beyond primary level and if so, will that be the case in the more conservative Pushtun rural areas, as well as in cities like Mazar, Herat and Kabul.


On the question of before the transitional government is in place, reopening schools, and so on. Absolutely. We are supporting with money and technical support of all kinds the World Food Programme in this, and the principle before 11 September was food for schools, food for girls in schools, it wasn't a political conditionality, and reopening schools, getting normalisation, getting children fed, getting girls back to school. As soon as the UN can get in and operate it will work anywhere where it is possible to do that. And then the commitment to education post-primary, yes of course. But the whole international system's focus is the prioritisation of universal quality primary education. Any country that builds that, then goes on of course to build secondary, and you get a greater demand in secondary. But in the past, errors have been made in development of only focussing on higher levels and then you never get universality in education, so of course you don't stop at primary. But the commitment to universality, the commitment to an education system that caters for all: every child, every boy, every girl, is the first step, but of course there will be an effort then to reopen the Universities and training colleges. The whole country is going to be short of skills, but we have to deliver on the universal commitment to primary education.


Are you concerned that Washington's reluctance to send in troops at the moment is going to delay all the measures that you want to bring in.


No, I have just been in Ottawa at the World Bank Meeting, so I'm not totally up to date, but obviously the situation is slightly messy but it would be wouldn't it? No-one can bring about what we are working on. I am personally optimistic. The collapse makes a mess, but it speeds up the ending, and the possibility of the UN return, and the UN is in Kabul and planning to come into Mazar, back into areas of the country, so we are not there, but I am optimistic that we will be able to do it, and then there is going to be so much to do, but it will be a very welcome task.

Thank you very much.


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