Statement by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

Statement to the House on Afghanistan

E and OE proof only.

It is widely accepted that the decision to commit a country to war is one of the most difficult decisions a government will ever make. The magnitude of this responsibility is indeed sobering, and it is significant and appropriate that this House takes time to reflect on the conflict in Afghanistan, on its impacts and on its future.

Whether soldiers are engaging across borders or whether combatants are struggling for control within regions, there is an inevitable level of tragedy associated with any conflict. So of course it is absolutely right for us to assess why we go to war, whether our grounds are sound, whether there remains an ongoing task and at what time it is right to leave.

We went to Afghanistan, as the Minister for Defence outlined recently, for a range of reasons. We are there because we are strongly of the view that we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a breeding ground for international terrorism once more.

Importantly, we are also there as part of the United Nations mandated International Security Assistance Force, and this UN Security Council resolution was unanimously renewed this month. Thirdly, we are there working with our allies, including the United States.

The abuse of women under the Taliban regime is not of itself why we committed to the war in Afghanistan, but I believe that it is another important reason why we should stay there. Last week I launched the United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2010 report.

The report, From conflict and crisis to renewal: generations of change, detailed some shocking examples of the abuse of women in conflicts around the globe. We know that war frequently exacerbates gender based violence. As the UNFPA report stated, women are:

… disempowered by rape or by the threat of it and by HIV infection, trauma and disabilities that often result from it. Girls are disempowered when they cannot go to school because of the threat of violence, when they are abducted or trafficked, or when their families disintegrate or must flee.

But, as we also know from the UNFPA, conflict and crisis can also create opportunities for the empowerment of women and new avenues to address gender inequality. We know from UN analysis that after conflict there is an opportunity for change, a chance for countries to be rebuilt, a chance to break cycles of crisis and oppression and replace them with structures that foster success and growth.

This critical period provides space for the long-term development and empowerment of women that gives nations the best chance of being rebuilt with the genders on an equal footing and with rights and opportunities for all.

This is no more so than in Afghanistan. We know that, through the process of rebuilding the country, Afghan women can challenge gender inequalities and that we must do everything we can to help them.

To those that suggest we can do this without any military intervention, I say that we need to be realistic about exactly the sorts of forces that we are up against.

Afghan women are among the most vulnerable in the world. The life expectancy for women in Afghanistan is 44 years. Maternal mortality is the second highest in the world due to a lack of access to and quality of prenatal and maternal healthcare facilities, early marriage age and high fertility rates. Literacy rates among Afghan women, especially where the Australian military efforts are focused, are estimated to be as low as 0.1 per cent.

Afghanistan is rated the second last in the world on the United Nations Gender Development Index, which measures inequalities between men and women in terms of life expectancy, literacy rates and standards of living.

These women do not suffer this disadvantage by accident or by neglect; they do so because it has been and it remains the will of the Taliban.

Prior to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, women were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights. Women received the right to vote in the 1920s. As early as the 1960s the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women.

In the early 1990s women were 50 per cent of government workers and university students, 70 per cent of schoolteachers and 40 per cent of doctors in Kabul. But all of this changed when the Taliban came to power and immediately started to dismantle the status of women in Afghanistan. They instituted a regime that has been likened to gender apartheid, effectively thrusting the women of Afghanistan into a state of virtual house arrest.

The Taliban locked women out of the universities, forced nearly all women to quit their jobs, restricted access to medical care for women, brutally enforced a restrictive dress code and constrained their physical freedom to move about the cities.

The Taliban perpetrated hideous acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction and forced marriage. Some families tried to send their daughters to Pakistan or Iran in order to protect them. The Taliban ended education for girls, with girls over the age of eight prohibited from attending school.

The Taliban required windows to be painted over so that women could not be seen from inside their houses. They burned health posters and they prevented doctors from examining a woman unless she was fully clothed. Women’s health was so appalling that childbirth could indeed be a death sentence.

Now, nine years have passed since the Taliban’s fall from power. We know that there has been some progress in restoring Afghan women’s rights but that the situation in Afghanistan does continue to be fraught.

In 2008 Taliban insurgents were arrested for throwing acid in the face of schoolgirls in Kandahar. In 2009, 150 schoolgirls were hospitalised after three suspected gas attacks on their schools.

In April 2009, Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, was gunned down outside her home—her murderers likely to receive the equivalent of $2,500, which the Taliban has offered to anyone who murders a council member.

In September last year Colonel Malalai Kakar, a woman who has risen to become the head of Kandahar’s department of crimes against women, was assassinated herself.

In August this year, five campaign staffers who were supporting the campaign of MP Fawzia Gilani were kidnapped and killed. So the Taliban are still a threat. They are still a threat to women, especially women who have the courage and the determination to claim equality and who are working to rebuild their nation.

We need to seize the opportunity arising out of Afghanistan’s post-conflict recovery to ensure not just that the country is rebuilt but that Afghan society is better, with women and men on an equal footing, with rights and opportunities for all and a foundation for a just and equitable society.

We need to sow the seeds of long-term development and peace. We must continue to invest in the women of Afghanistan so that they can enjoy an unprecedented age of social and economic progress and empowerment.

There is a protective effect that arises from equality. The more equal the society the less violence that is experienced by its citizens. There will only be sustained peace in Afghanistan if we can help them to improve the status of women and engender equality across the community. And we are starting to see this.

The Afghan police force is attracting recruits, particularly in Bamyam province in central Afghanistan. This is a special province of Habiba Sarabi, who was Afghanistan’s first female governor. This region now claims the lowest levels of violence and some women in the region have now been allowed to drive.

Indeed, there is evidence that Australian support to Afghanistan is having a significant impact on the lives of Afghan women, that we are helping these women to break a cycle of crisis and oppression and replace it with opportunities for success and growth.

Over the past week, we have heard from many of our parliamentary colleagues about Australian initiatives that have been transformative in Afghanistan.

The Basic Package of Health Services program, which Australia supports, has effectively doubled the number of functioning primary healthcare facilities across the country and led to a 26 per cent reduction in infant mortality.

The Education Quality Improvement Program, which Australia supports, has seen girls’ enrolment in school increase from zero under the Taliban to over 2 million in 2009. Since April 2009 Australia has supported the school attendance of some 3,655 primary school students, including 71 per cent girls in seven provinces across Afghanistan through Care International’s Community Organised Primary Education program.

We are constructing and fitting out a new provincial girls school that will provide a secure learning environment for around 600 girls. Through the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan, which Australia supports, almost 440,000 Afghans have access to over 1.5 million microfinance services across 26 provinces, and 66 per cent of these clients are female.

For the 2009 elections, Australia supported the training of 132 Afghan female election observers. Contrasted with life under the Taliban only a decade ago when women were denied education, work, health care and movement, it is clear that our work is making a very clear difference.

Yes, we still have a long way to go, but we cannot allow the Taliban to continue to attack women and girls as they strive to improve themselves and their community. We cannot have them live in fear. We must support the creation of conditions that will allow for them to flourish and engage in the economic and social life of their nation.

The most compelling words that I believe I can offer to this debate on why we should remain in Afghanistan in fact belong to the women of Afghanistan themselves—the words, for example, of Dr Sakena Yacoobi, who runs the Afghan Institute of Learning, an organisation working with women to improve health and education in seven Afghan provinces.

She said earlier this year that a military presence was needed for at last another five years ‘in a conflict where extremists deliberately poison the drinking water at schools to scare away the children’.

Dr Yacoobi, who ran underground schools for girls in the 1990s, says:

At this moment, I think it would be unfair for the people of Afghanistan—especially for the women and children, who have been suffering for 20 and 30 years—to just leave them and walk out. As soon as allied soldiers walk out and leave Afghanistan, the first blood shed will be the blood of women and children.

She says that for years women in Afghanistan have been abused and are very submissive, but, in reality, ‘the women of Afghanistan are very intelligent—brilliant’. She said:

….once you give them the opportunity … they are taking action and trying to solve problems on their own. Similarly, Ida Lichter, in her book Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression, has said:

If foreign troops leave prematurely … much progress for women’s rights could be squandered.

We know that the women in Afghanistan are ready for change. The history of suffering and abuse under the Taliban is a deep horror but also a great motivator for Australia to contribute to creating the conditions in which these women can indeed thrive.

Given the service that we have demanded of Australians deployed in Afghanistan, I return to the central question of this debate: should Australia be in Afghanistan? Is our presence in that country justified?

It is true that the Afghan people are the architects of their own society, but, given the history of this conflict and the danger that women still face, our role is to help to create the conditions in which this can be achieved.

The rebuilding of Afghanistan cannot take place without advancing its women, who are a major social, political and economic resource for their country.

We are not in Afghanistan simply to protect women from violence, but we are in Afghanistan to ensure that the people have the security and the civil stability which will enable women to become agents of change in their own country.

So how will we know when our work is done there? For us to be successful in our overall mission, one clear indicator will be that change must be felt in the lives of the women of Afghanistan. It must be felt by girls on their way to school. It must be felt by female health workers, teachers, public servants and politicians.

I believe that this, absolutely, will be a true measure of our success.

In contributing to this debate I also want to give credit and pay tribute to not only the Australians who have sacrificed their lives in this cause but also all of those men and women who continue to serve within the ADF and who are doing a fine job representing our country and a significant cause.