U.S. Sen. Bob Casey

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey

Pennsylvania’s senior U.S. senator said his active role in advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan is inspired by the Afghan women he has met.

“The basic injustice that’s at stake here when women are not treated as they should be is enough to get my attention and should command the attention of all people,” Sen. Bob Casey said in an interview this week.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee with jurisdiction over Middle East policy from 2009 to 2013, he met dozens of politically active women willing to risk their lives to fight for better opportunities.

Casey, who has four daughters, said one of the most profound encounters he had was with Suraya Pakzad, a mother of six and a decorated women’s rights activist, who has been awarded the International Women of Courage Award.

Pakzad runs five women’s shelters and serves as the executive director of the Voice of Women Organization, which provides safe shelters and education for women in Afghanistan.

“Women like Pakzad are advocating for reform, under constant threats, to bring hope to her country,” he said.

Casey said many people work quietly in the background on these humanitarian issues while the headlines often focus on the fighting in the Middle East.

Casey, who has four daughters, said one of the most profound encounters he had was with Suraya Pakzad, a mother of six and decorated women’s rights activist, who has been awarded the International Women of Courage Award.

Pakzad runs five women’s shelters and serves as the executive director of the Voice of Women Organization, which provides safe shelters and education for women in Afghanistan.

“Women like Pakzad are advocating for reform under constant threats to bring hope to her country,” he said.

Casey said there are a lot of people working on these humanitarian issues quietly in the background while the headlines often focus on the military action taking place in the Middle East.

He said he’s continually impressed by the commitment of diplomats and the vast network of organizations that are on the front lines of these issues.

Afghan women have choices today they never had before. Some will be the first woman in their family to go to school, open a business or run for public office.

Women’s rights have made gains in the past decade as more women earn degrees, receive better health care and are allowed to move about their communities more freely. But, the lawmaker said, these advances could be eroded without continued support.

As recently as Sunday, a prominent female Afghan lawmaker was attacked in an apparent assassination attempt in Kabul. The bomb blast targeting her car killed at least three people and wounded 22 others, officials said.

Events like that motivate Casey, who has always described himself as a supporter of equal rights for women, to ramp up efforts to reauthorize an initiative he has championed for several years.

The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act sponsored by Casey, a Democrat, and Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, would require the secretary of defense to assist Afghan officials in the development of a strategy to protect these gains as troops are withdrawn.

The provision calls for training Afghan security forces on women’s rights, holding forces accountable for violations, and recruiting more women for the Army and police.

He will discuss the push for that legislation as well as his other advocacy work on behalf of Afghan women this weekend at a conference in Norway on the future of women in that country.

Casey said making sure the gains that soldiers made and taxpayers have paid for is vital. There is fear that with the departure of foreign forces this year, those in charge will take those newfound freedoms away or simply use women as a bargaining chip in peace talks with the Taliban.

“The hard work is just beginning is many ways. Making sure these gains result in long-term changes is the focus now,” he said.

Casey said empowered women have an immensely positive impact on their communities, investing resources in education, health care and other basic needs. And, the hope is, more stability will lead to less violence at home and abroad.

“The most likely pathway for a young boy to become radicalized is to have that young boy in a situation where his mother is unable to support the family,” he said. “Investing in women now helps protect the work we’ve already done.”

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