By Lyle Moran
LOWELL -- When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, women could not attend school and were considered second-class citizens in the country.
A little more than a decade later and with the Taliban long since overthrown, the prospects for women living in Afghanistan are brighter than ever, said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat.
On a visit to the country last weekend, her fifth, Tsongas said she saw how women are continuing to make gains in education and leading nonprofits, but are also now training to become part of the nation's security forces.
"Women are flourishing in expanded opportunities that have opened up in the past 10 years," Tsongas told The Sun in an Wednesday after returning from Afghanistan.
Tsongas and five other female members of the House Armed Services Committee met with 10 female cadets at the Afghan National Defense University on the outskirts of Kabul. Tsongas said she was impressed with the female cadets' desire to serve their country and take on roles women have been not been able to hold in the country.
"There are challenges, but they are very committed to being part of the future of the army and the country," Tsongas said.
The Afghans are seeking to have women join their security forces to help secure credibility for their efforts in the country, said Tsongas.
The delegation also visited with students at Herat University, a school in which women make up 40 percent of the student body.
Tsongas said she was encouraged the students they met were part of an ever-growing group of women securing an education in the war-torn country.
"Across the country millions of girls are being educated, which is an impressive change," she said.
The women the delegation met with all made clear as the U.S. pulls out its forces completely, they don't want to see the Taliban come back and reverse the gains women have made in society.
The Afghan forces are expected to continue to take more control of the security work needed in the country this summer. Tsongas said the generals who briefed her delegation expressed confidence the Afghan forces are prepared to take on the responsibility.
"Time will tell, but they are the experts and I take them at their word," Tsongas said. "Everyone acknowledges it is a fragile and complicated situation. There is a lot at stake going forward."
The visit over Mother's Day weekend was also a chance for Tsongas to visit with "military moms," who are female soldiers with children back home. Tsongas said she enjoyed getting to thank the women for their service to the country.
"The most striking aspect of these visits is seeing the incredible selflessness and skill with which our troops continue to serve us," Tsongas said. "It is important to let them know that their sacrifice is never forgotten and that they are always in our thoughts despite serving half a world away."