U.S. Sen. Bob Casey spent Sunday in Norway promoting an issue that has become extremely important to him and has helped defined him in the international community.
Casey, D-Scranton, was keynote speaker and lead U.S. official at the Oslo Symposium on Advancing Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan.
As past chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over Afghanistan issues, Casey has been pushing for women’s rights and protections in the country for several years.
For example, he successfully pressed the State Department to increase the number of domestic violence shelters in the country.
“One major goal is … for U.S. policy to be that we’re going to remain committed to the gains that women in Afghanistan have attained with the help of American soldiers and diplomats and taxpayers so that we don’t have Afghan society falling backwards and losing all the gains that have been achieved,” Casey said in an interview last week.
Casey said there have been many visible signs of progress for women in Afghanistan.
“The number of girls attending school, the number of women working in public (places) like schools or hospitals, the women who are participating in the political system, we want to make sure that those gains that were hard to win, hard to achieve, and achieved substantially because our soldiers sacrificed so much, we want to make sure those gains are not lost,” he said.
Casey said maintaining women’s rights is important not only for humanitarian reasons, but for national security.
“If a young boy in Afghanistan has a mom who is not desperate, if that family has enough to eat and they have opportunities for education and they learn about not just Afghanistan, but the world, he will be much less likely to be radicalized,” Casey said.
“But if a child is hungry, if a mother is hungry and they’re desperate, they don’t have economic security, they don’t have education and they can’t read, that’s a recipe for disaster in society,” Casey said.
“Those boys and young men will ultimately become much more susceptible to terrorism,” he said, “because if someone walks in the door and says, ‘I can make sure your family has enough to eat, I can make sure you have a job and some pay, just join our extreme cause,’ that’s what the preaching will be.”
Casey said he believes the Taliban is trying to persuade the new Afghan government into backing off women’s issues.
“There’s already evidence that there will be a lot of people pushing against this — very powerful interests in Afghanistan and other places around the world pushing against this. The last thing that the Taliban or other groups that I would consider extreme, the last thing they want is to have these hard-won rights, these basic reforms, develop roots and a foundation which won’t be torn apart,” Casey said.
“So they’re going to fight hard against this, and you’ve got very powerful and in some cases evil forces against it. So we have to fight hard to win the legislative battle. But over time, that’s where we really have to fight to make sure this doesn’t begin to fade away,” he said.
Casey said talks at the symposium will focus on fundamentals such as the importance of recruiting and retaining women in Afghan national security forces, ensuring there is adequate staffing of polling stations by female officers in the 2015 elections. “And we want to make sure policemen are specially trained in work with women and adolescent victims,” he said.
He points to injustices suffered today by women in Afghanistan as evidence of backsliding.
“Women are jailed, women are victims of horrific sexual assaults. It was recently reported in the New York Times that a mullah, someone who has great power and significance in a community, raped a 10-year-old girl in a mosque. … You’ve got a society where the justice system that’s set up is barely responsive to those kinds of acts of violence,” Casey said.
Despite that, Casey said there are Afghan women who are “so heroic. They’re standing up for each other, they’re opening businesses, they’re running for office to bring about reform, they’re pushing the leadership over the last number of years to do the right thing.”
Casey said there is bipartisan support in Congress for supporting women’s issues. The hard part won’t be legislating, he said. The hard part will be sustaining pressure on the Afghan government over a number of years so officials don’t give in to influence from the Taliban and other radical groups.
Casey explained some of the motivations behind his commitment to helping keep Afghan women empowered and protecting their rights.
“Look, I’ve got four daughters and I know what advantages they have because they have an education and they have rights and they have legal protections in this country that they don’t have in other places,” Casey said.
“And I think maybe one of the most important things is the inspiration that I’ve experienced when I talk to these women who are so brave, who literally put their lives on the line every single day to make sure that more women have rights,” Casey said, noting he met an Afghan woman in 2011 whose husband and father were both killed because they’re involved in politics, yet she still stays involved in politics.
“So, the subcommittee work, the inspiration from these Afghan women and their families, plus the obvious sense of justice that I think we all have about how we should treat women,” he said.