First lady Laura Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings made a surprise, whirlwind visit to Afghanistan last week, spending most of their six hours on the ground promoting education for girls and greater rights for women.
Mrs. Bush, whose trip was kept a secret until she boarded her plane at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington on March 29, said she has wanted to go to Afghanistan for years and was inspired by American women’s interest in the plight of Afghan women.
“It is very hard to imagine the idea of denying girls an education, of never allowing girls to go to school and I’m sure men as well were struck with the horror of it, but I think particularly American women,” Mrs. Bush told reporters, according to a White House press pool report.
During the trip, Mrs. Bush met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and announced a $17.7 million grant to set up a new American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and a $3.5 million grant to start an International School of Afghanistan, which will provide what the first lady called a “classical curriculum” to children from kindergarten through high school.
Mrs. Bush and Secretary Spellings also visited a teacher-training institute at Kabul University, set up last year as part of a literacy and community-empowerment program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and managed by the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center. The first lady and Ms. Spellings met with a group of women from Parwan province who are being trained to teach in their villages.
“The survival of a free society ultimately depends on the participation of all its citizens, both men and women,” Mrs. Bush said during the March 30 visit. “This is possible if institutions like this exist to give women the basic tools they need to contribute fully to society—and the most critical tool of all is education.”
Excitement About Literacy
Cornelia Janke, a project manager for the literacy program, said in an interview that the two-year program is expected to help 10,000 Afghan students in 200 villages achieve literacy. The response from Afghan women to the institute, she said, has been overwhelming.
“Afghanistan is a hopeful place right now,” Ms. Janke said, adding that during a recent trip there she found the women really excited about literacy and wanting to improve their own lives and community. “One of our concerns is there is too much demand for what we are doing, and we will not be able to meet all of it,” she said.
Mrs. Bush also announced a new program, Learning for Life, a health-focused course designed to help reduce maternal and child mortality. She said the program addresses both literacy and health-care needs of Afghan women.
“It will help people learn to read with materials that are focused on health,” she said. “This makes literacy directly relevant to something women care about greatly—the well-being of their families.”
Mrs. Bush, a former public school teacher and librarian, said her dream is to see Afghanistan as an educated country “where all these little girls that started school two years ago on March 23 will have graduated from high school and be going to Kabul University or some of these other universities there.”
Schools in Afghanistan reopened on that date in 2003, after a U.S.-led military operation drove out the ruling Taliban regime and helped install an interim democratic government.
Under the Taliban, which espoused a strict form of Islam, women in Afghanistan were not allowed to work, and girls were denied an education. M. Ashraf Haidari, a spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington, said in an interview that over the past two years, 5 million children have returned to school, 40 percent of them girls.
“Women participated heavily in the elections in 2004 and exercised their constitutional right,” he said, adding that there is also an increase in women’s leadership in Afghan institutions and more efforts to involve women in politics.
Secretary Spellings, in a March 31 speech for Women’s History Day at the White House just hours after her return, described the Afghanistan trip as “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in government.”
“We are truly making progress—strengthening democracy’s foundation and setting a positive example to the rest of the world,” she said.
The trip was timed to coincide with a meeting in Kabul of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, which was created in 2002 to promote public-private partnerships between American and Afghan institutions.
Susan C. Hovanec, a Washington-based spokeswoman for the council, said the council has sponsored vocational-training courses for Afghan women; set up academic exchanges, women’s community centers, and teacher-training programs; and facilitated “microcredit” lending to help women set up small businesses in Afghanistan.
“Afghan women have moved ahead by leaps and bounds,” she said. She added, however, that there remains a great need to focus on girls’ education and to enroll girls older than 12 who had never attended school under the Taliban.
“We are trying to make sure that a whole generation is not lost to illiteracy,” Ms. Hovanec said. Nearly 80 percent of women in the country are still illiterate, she said, though that figure, she added, is dropping rapidly.
President Karzai was quoted as saying that Mrs. Bush’s visit “matters much more than hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Before departing, the first lady had dinner at the Bagram Air Base with the U.S. troops who continue to battle insurgents led by remnants of the Taliban.
“Thanks to you, millions of little girls are going to school in this country,” she told the troops.