Former first lady Laura Bush says women in Afghanistan are creating their own economic opportunities and that entrepreneurship will be highlighted at a conference this week at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.
About 250 people including government, business and nonprofit leaders are set to attend the conference and exchange ideas on helping Afghan women achieve economic success. A dinner was planned for Wednesday night, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is to address attendees via video Thursday.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul and students from the American University of Afghanistan also will participate in a portion of the conference by video.
"What we're hoping is to show our strong support for women in the economy," Laura Bush told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
A longtime supporter of women's rights in Afghanistan, the former first lady made trips to the country after the Sept. 11 attacks. She said research shows that a country's economy is more prosperous when its women are included.
Some Afghan women fear their government's efforts to reconcile with the Taliban, who severely repressed and brutalized women. Girls were not allowed to go to school, women spent most of their time inside their homes and were forced to wear burqas or long flowing garments that covered their heads, faces and bodies.
Today, Afghan women serve in the Afghan legislature, own businesses and work as teachers, lawyers, community health workers and prosecutors. Still, though, some women walk the streets in burqas — a sign that Afghan women are still silenced and disrespected in their male-dominated society.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently said that the United States would step up efforts to build international support for Afghan reconciliation. The Afghan government has had contacts with high-ranking Taliban officials, but no formal negotiations are under way.
Clinton has said that finding a political solution to end the war would require the Taliban to renounce violence, sever ties with al-Qaida and respect the Afghan constitution and the country's laws, particularly as they apply to women's rights.
Laura Bush also has spoken out on the issue of reconciling with the Taliban. In an op-ed in October 2010, she wrote that "peace attained by compromising the rights of half of the population will not last. Offenses against women erode security for all Afghans — men and women."
She has continued to participate in the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council formed by her husband and Karzai. Bush said Tuesday that women in Afghanistan still face many challenges but have made a lot of progress.
"Women are working now. It's been pretty amazing to see how Afghan women have gone to work starting their own businesses," she said.
Two of these women will be attending the conference. Fatema Akbari, and her daughter, Shahla Akbari, both have their own businesses in Kabul.
"I see a lot of changes in the attitude and the level of business," Fatema Akbari said through an interpreter during a phone interview Wednesday. "In 2003, I established my business. At that time, the number of women who were working was very limited."
She employs 90 people in her furniture-making business and also heads a nonprofit that has trained about 5,000 women in skills and literacy. Her daughter's shoe-making business has 20 workers.
Shahla Akbari told the AP that during the conference she hopes to convey to young women in Afghanistan that "you can do this like me."
Another conference participant, Dina Habib Powell, is president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, which has a goal of helping 10,000 underserved women entrepreneurs around the world get access to business education. Both Akbari women have participated in the foundation's program.
"When you invest in a woman and they become more economically empowered they turn around and put those resources back into the community," Powell said.
Former President George W. Bush also will take part in the conference on the campus of Southern Methodist University, where the George W. Bush Presidential Center is being built. The center, which will house the Bush library and the institute, is expected to be completed in 2013.
The institute also held a conference last year on educating and empowering women and girls of Afghanistan.