(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former first lady Laura Bush may have been political opposites as first ladies, but they’re in lock step on one important issue: improving the lives of women in Afghanistan.
In her introduction of Bush, the guest of honor at the 10th anniversary celebration of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, Clinton called herself and Mrs. Bush part of a “very small group.”
“And it’s a group that has made a great contribution in so many ways during the course of our country’s history,” she said.
She referenced Dolly Madison, who had famously saved White House treasures during the war of 1812, as one example of how America’s first ladies have influenced history.
“There are some stories which are well known, and other stories which have yet to be told, and, I hope, some stories that never see the light of day,” she joked to a laughing crowd.
But the subject of the day, the plight of Afghan women, was no laughing matter. The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council was founded by President George W. Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2002, to support programs focused on empowering Afghan women in health, education and business.
Bush thanked Clinton profusely before talking about how the events of 9/11 shaped her commitment to helping women in Afghanistan. She recalled the radio address she gave in November of 2001, which focused on the difficulty of living under the Taliban for Afghani women.
“The stark contrast between our lives and of women in Afghanistan horrified American women,” Bush said, recalling an earlier time, when the plight of Afghani women was just becoming known to Americans. “Everywhere I went, women stopped me and asked what they could do. American women wanted to help.”
The Council honored both Bush and Clinton for their continued support, both in government and in the private sector. Some of the council’s programs include training for health workers and midwives and sponsoring scholarships for students to attend the American University of Afghanistan. The organization has also constructed a learning center for disadvantaged children in Bamyan and has established a burn center providing reconstructive surgery.
Afghanistan continues to have one of the highest maternal death rates in the world, and the lowest literacy rates for women worldwide.
Clinton acknowledged that the country still has as long way to go before the majority of its women enjoy basic human rights, but she pointed to the progress made over the last 10 years; life expectancy, school enrollment and infant mortality rates have improved significantly since 2001.
She also promised that as secretary of state, she will work to make sure that any peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban include the protection of women’s rights, which is already a part of the current Afghani constitution.
Any compromise on that issue is a “red line” to the United States and the international community, the secretary said.
“There are always going to be those, not only in Afghanistan, who want to roll back progress for women and impose second-class citizenship on women,” said Clinton. “We will not waver on this point. Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Junko Ogura, Madison Park, Yoko Wakatsuki and Ray Sanchez, CNN Newswire
Oren Liebermann, CNN