ASPI / NATO Ambassador's Event: “Women, Peace and Security – Reflections on Afghanistan”

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Good evening, everyone. And may I thank ASPI board member Gai Brodtmann, our ASPI moderator today, Anastasia Kapetas. Your Excellencies, including Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, Christine Clarke, and the very many distinguished guests who are there, both physically and online this afternoon.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to offer my reflections on Afghanistan and on women, peace and security to mark International Women's Day 2022. I also want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet, the many lands, given the nature of a virtual event, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging.

We know that this event and its planning, its topic have been ongoing since last year, months before the current crisis caused by the most recent actions of Russia. And back then, who would have thought that it was possible that the beginning of 2022 would present more challenges, be more difficult in many ways than 2021? But so it has become. Never has it been more important for us to focus on NATO and on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, not just as it relates to Afghanistan, which is vitally important in and of itself, but as a universal good that must underpin our approach to global collective security and become part of the DNA of our shared values and principles.

I thank Their Excellencies, the Ambassadors of Croatia, the Netherlands, and Norway for framing this event today. Thank you, Betty, Marion and Paul. They and all NATO nation ambassadors in Australia have been exceptionally important to our country over the last 20 years. As an enhanced opportunities partner with NATO, Australia takes our NATO partnership very seriously indeed. I met again with Secretary-General Stoltenberg in Munich a fortnight ago, and I have much appreciated our engagement over many years now in my roles both as Australia's Minister for Defence and Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs. At every stage it has been clear to me that NATO is a central delivery platform for the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

To the members of the Afghan Australian community who are here today, welcome. I assure you that while the egregious Russian invasion of Ukraine is dominating international focus, our attention continues on the continuing crisis in Afghanistan, and that's why I'm very pleased to participate in this discussion today.

Indeed, both crises demonstrate some fundamental similarities a failure to negotiate in good faith by one of the parties. The attempt by one party to subjugate the people's right to legitimate self determination, and one party using violence to obtain territorial gain.

Before I do turn to Afghanistan, it is important to mark the power of international pressure on Russia. For Australia's part, we join with many other nations and with NATO in unreservedly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in calling for a halt to hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian forces. We're joining other nations in effective financial and trade sanctions against Russia, in voicing our strongest opposition to Russia's egregious violation of Ukraine's legitimate sovereignty and in providing an initial $35 million of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Australia is also providing assistance in the form of military equipment.

The unity of action in the international community over Russia shows the power of coordinated international action that can also be applied to Afghanistan. The dynamics are different, and the situation is perhaps even more complex with Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we're trying to financially assist a severe humanitarian crisis while keeping money out of the hands of Taliban corruption and of terrorist networks. Nevertheless, we have seen pressure on the Taliban work. Taliban administration is not recognised. It doesn't control Embassies around the world, it can't generate a diplomatic corps. We're not allowing its rhetoric against women and girls to gain credence. We're challenging Taliban human rights abuses, and we're maintaining pressure on the Taliban to renounce violence, to cease retributions, and to honour the undertakings it has made to the international community.

On Monday of this week, Australia and Spain delivered a joint statement in the UN Human Rights Council during the interactive dialogue on Afghanistan. On behalf of 60 cosignatory nations, we made five fundamental points: we assert that without women's full, equal, and meaningful participation in civic and economic life, women do not have the opportunity to freely express and represent their own interests, enjoy the security of generating livelihoods, or contribute to the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Secondly, we are deeply concerned that women have been systematically excluded from public life in Afghanistan, with reports of job losses, restrictions on human rights, and fundamental freedoms, including through arbitrary detentions, restrictions on political participation, and lack of access to essential services. Thirdly, we support the right to freedom of opinion and expression exercised by peaceful demonstrators during recent women's rights protests in Afghanistan. Fourthly, we insist on the removal of gender specific restrictions which currently amplify the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, easing the humanitarian crisis that women have the agency to partake equally in all aspects of the response, and the girls are free to continue their education as the schooling year begins this month. And we assert, finally, that women's empowerment and girls’ education benefits all of Afghanistan without distinction.

Colleagues, for Afghanistan, I believe firmly that the Women, Peace and Security Agenda can be one of our most effective tools. WPS has long been a key element of our approach to security discussions and funding approaches, be it in conflict, in humanitarian aid, development assistance, or disaster relief programs. The heart of WPS lies both the fact and the fundamental truth that peace, stability, security, and conflict recovery is measurably more effective when women are active participants in negotiations and agreements than when they are not.

With Afghanistan's dual imperatives of recovering from conflict and surviving a humanitarian crisis, there's no plausible, no legitimate excuse for the isolation and disempowerment of women on any grounds, religious or otherwise. After the Taliban was removed from power in Afghanistan in 2002, life for all sectors of the community improved, especially for women and girls. School enrolments increased tenfold from 2002. Access to healthcare rose from 9 per cent to 57 per cent between 2002 and 2020. The maternal mortality rate fell from 1100 deaths to 396 deaths per 100,000 live births between 2000 and 2015. Still far too high, but a remarkable shrinking in those numbers.

Women's representation in politics increased from zero in 2001 to 27 per cent in 2020. With the support of the then Afghan government, the Australian government funded programs that led to an improvement in the economic well being of 20,000 women and girls living in rural areas in Afghanistan through reforms in agriculture and by supporting a successful women-only marketplace to sell their products in a secure environment.

We supported the education of over 500 students, 80 per cent of whom were girls and mostly in remote regions. As a donor to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, we helped to leverage around US $17.5 million through community groups and World Bank grants to distribute to Afghans, 80 per cent of whom were women, in the form of catalytic entrepreneurial loans. Women and girls’ economic participation, access to health and education, and their protection and security have been a core focus for Australia's diplomatic, defence and international development engagement since we began our assistance to Afghanistan. Since 2005, Australia provided over one and a half billion dollars in development and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan to assist in driving these vital changes.

We're continuing our longstanding commitments. In September last year, I announced a further $100 million for humanitarian assistance to respond to the crisis in Afghanistan, with a specific focus on supporting women and girls. I've seen the benefits of the work of ADF gender advisers on the ground in Afghanistan. I've heard the heartfelt views of women in Afghanistan and the heartfelt views of the gender advisors delivering that support and seen how important that engagement has been historically. Not just Australian gender advisers, but many others. I'm immensely proud of the work that Australia has done with the international community through those gender advisers over many years, and I heard Betty refer to others. We're immensely proud of that work, particularly when I saw Australian women in uniform delivering that support. And I very much hope that we can find a pathway through to ensuring that such support can be delivered again.

What we see in Afghanistan and also, unfortunately, in Ukraine, shows that we do need clear thinking. We need strategies, and we need national action plans to address the UN's Women, Peace and Security Agenda. These strategies and these NAPs demonstrate we're prepared to own the challenge ourselves, not leave it all to the UN to achieve alone.

Last year, my government released the second Australian National Action Plan on Women's Peace and Security. We renewed our commitment to the full and equal participation of women and girls in peace and security arrangements. The Australian National Action Plan identifies four goals: meaningful female participation in peace processes around the world, fighting sexual and gender based violence, building national resilience to meet the needs of women and girls, and showing leadership on women, peace and security. We look at all of these aspects when considering how best to deploy humanitarian and development assistance and other conflict resolution or restorative justice programs.

My government is also working with the international community and civil society organisations to press for the maintenance of rights for women and girls in Afghanistan and for their security and other needs. Just a fortnight ago, although it seems longer, I co-hosted with Germany's new Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, a meeting of the female Foreign Ministers who were attending the Munich Security Conference. We spoke then of the importance of women's leadership and human security and how to advance our goals.

On Monday night this week, I chaired a virtual meeting of female foreign ministers called to discuss the situation faced by women in Afghanistan. With 18 female Foreign Ministers attending, it was the largest grouping to meet to date. It shows that more women are holding the role of Foreign Minister, and that's a good thing, and it shows that we are working together on the WPS agenda, and that is a very good thing. We listened on Monday evening, very late here and across the world at other time zones, to three Afghan women speak so powerfully about their experiences and about their views on what needs to happen next in Afghanistan.

One of the participants was the former Afghan Minister for Women, Hasina Safi, who has had to leave Afghanistan. During my last visit to Kabul in May last year, it was my honour to meet Hasina Safi, and to discuss the advances for women and girls in Afghanistan and the challenges. And it remains my honour to continue working with her on these vital issues, to try to halt the erosion of social and economic gains made over the last 20 years.

With many other nations, Australia remains committed to the cause of women and girls in Afghanistan, in Ukraine and around the world. Afghan women have demonstrated they are active and tireless agents of change. They are crucial in shaping the future of their country. The international community will stand by its ongoing commitments to support Afghan women, to participate fully, equally and meaningfully at all levels of security and other decision making.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown us, global peace and security can never be taken for granted as a normal state of the world. Threats can emerge quickly and dramatically. We won't allow a new crisis to displace the unfinished objectives of a previous crisis, and we'll continue to press forward on the Women, Peace and Security agenda at every stage of our international dealings, for Afghanistan, for Ukraine, and for elsewhere in the world.

I thank ASPI very much for today's initiative and for the honour and opportunity to make these remarks. Thank you.

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