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DCM Louis Bono's Remarks at the Afghan Sustainable Livelihoods and Women’s Empowerment Panel
December 1, 2020

As delivered by Deputy Chief of Mission Louis Bono
December 1, 2020

Thank you Ambassador Ebrahimkhel for the opportunity to participate today.  It is truly an honor to be among the distinguished speakers and guests.

I would like to talk about an exceptional Afghan woman, Zarifa Ghafari, who epitomizes today’s topic.  Zarifa successfully launched a women-focused radio station, and then, at just 26 years old, became the mayor of Maidan Shar, a town of 35,000 people, located in a conservative part of Afghanistan. On her first day, when Zarifa showed up for work, a male mob appeared and she was forced to flee.  Despite death threats, Zarifa Ghafari came back, defying her critics, her intimidators, and their narrative that a woman is unfit to lead.

At just 28 years of age now, she has a lifetime of wisdom on this challenge:

I need to prove that women are not weak, she says.

No, women are not weak.  Throughout my career I have encountered scores of brave women across the world who have used their powers to:

  • Promote reconciliation in the Balkans — and  in Iraq;
  • Stem inner-city violence in New York;
  • Promote economic growth through Asia; and
  • Fight child labor in Pakistan.

Perhaps the bravest I’ve met are the nuns who stand down traffickers and militias while in service of the world’s most needy.

Zarifa’s courage has inspired women across Afghanistan and beyond.  Indeed, earlier this year, she was awarded the International Woman of Courage Award by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and First Lady Melania Trump.

But her work is far from over and the risks omnipresent.  Just weeks after receiving the award there was an attempt on her life. I find it somewhat revealing however, that the greater threat is not the Taliban, but the criminal syndicates.

Transnational criminal organizations weaken the rule of law in countries such as Afghanistan, and threaten the empowerment of women, particularly those that stand up to them like Zarifa.  Advancement of women’s rights is vital to economic, social, and political progress in Afghanistan, and the United States remains committed to empowering Afghan women.  For Afghanistan to prosper, the international community needs to stop criminal organizations from trafficking drugs, people, firearms, and perpetuating corruption.

That is why the United States has committed over two billion dollars since 2005 for the advancement of women and gender-related programs throughout Afghanistan, increasing access to education, as well as professional opportunities in fields ranging from law enforcement to healthcare.

U.S. support has also helped to reduce the production and trade of illicit drugs, introducing alternative livelihoods, and improving the delivery and effectiveness of drug treatment and recovery programs in Afghanistan.  This includes more than 20 million dollars for UNODC’s “Boosting Alternative Development Interventions Through Licit Livelihoods” project.

And just last week, the United States participated in the 2020 Afghanistan Conference, the sixth quadrennial gathering to coordinate international support for Afghanistan.  At the conference, we emphasized our commitment to supporting Afghanistan’s development and announced a pledge of 300 million dollars in civilian assistance for Afghanistan for calendar year 2021, which will include projects to support women’s advancement, with an additional $300 million available as we review progress in the peace process. 

The United States is committed to the people – and the women – of Afghanistan, to improving their lives and enhancing opportunities for education, economic empowerment, and increased participation in Afghan society.  The United States is also committed to a secure, stable, democratic, and self-reliant Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.

These two ideas are very much related.  Women around the world play an essential role in conflict prevention and resolution, and countering terrorism and organized crime.  And societies that empower women economically and politically are proven more stable and peaceful.

So I commend Ambassador Ebrahimkhel for convening us here today.  This is a collective effort; Zarifa and those who follow her lead need our support; the support of our governments and our international institutions as Zarifa says:

To make people believe in women’s rights and women’s power.

Thank you, and I look forward to today’s discussion.