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Shaheen: Women’s rights vital to foreign policy

DURHAM -- Protecting women’s rights must be “a pillar” of American foreign policy, according to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Reflecting on a recent trip to Afghanistan, Shaheen said “probably the No. 1 success” she has seen since the start of U.S. intervention in 2003 has been the progress women have made.

“It’s not unilateral, it’s not across the board,” Shaheen said. “But girls are now in school, women are in the universities. Nearly one-third of the Afghan Parliament is composed of women.

“That’s better than the United States, by the way,” Shaheen added.

The senator’s remarks came Thursday at the University of New Hampshire at a seminar hosted by UNH’s Global Education Center and International Affairs Program, which focused on Congress and U.S. foreign policy.

With the Taliban, which before U.S. intervention controlled three-fourths of Afghanistan, currently waging war within the country, Shaheen said should peace talks become a reality, women have the most to lose in any negotiation.

“I had a chance to meet with some of the Afghan women leaders, and they told me first and foremost they want peace,” Shaheen said. “But they also said they also want to make sure their rights are protected. They don’t want to go back to that time when women had no rights. They want girls to be able to attend school. They want freedom of movement, the freedom to work. All things we take for granted in the United States.

“What does it say to our allies, in any negotiations, if we trade peace for the gains that have been made on behalf of our most vulnerable partners,” Shaheen added, “just because we want to say we ended the war.”

Shaheen said representing “the values we believe in in the United States” when engaging with foreign countries should be a vital component of U.S. foreign policy.

“That recent trip has certainly affected me as I think about what comes next in Afghanistan,” she said. “But it’s just one example of where U.S. leadership matters. For better or for worse, the United States is relied upon across the world, and we need to think deeply about the purpose of our engagement, why it’s necessary and what the costs involved are.”

Shaheen took questions from the audience, including one from a student who asked what can be done to further protect Americans in areas of conflict, such as the Middle East, in the wake of the murders of American journalists Steven Joel Sotlof and James Foley of Rochester.

Shaheen said she has been working with the Trump administration to bring justice to the people responsible for Sotlof’s murder, who Shaheen said she believes was the same group that murdered Foley in 2014.

“It’s really difficult to think about how to protect people,” Shaheen said. “Reporters go in to cover conflict, and we’ve lost a number of reporters due to conflict. (It’s) hard for a democracy to say to those reporters, ‘You can’t cover conflict, you can’t go into those dangerous places.’ Part of what’s critical to a democracy is access to information. I think that’s really hard to do.”