Saturday, April 01, 2006

Reflections on Afghanistan

I just got back from one of the best trips of my life. Yes, for some of you its hard to believe that Kabul, Afghanistan could rate so high up in the tourism landscape, but if travel is a way to push oneself out of our daily routines and see how others live, places like Afghanistan are the best places to travel.

I traveled for two weeks to the other end of the world to learn about the status of women’s lives in the post-2001 Afghanistan. I went on a delegation of 12 people with a San Francisco based group called Global Exchange on what they call a "Reality Tour". Each day we met with brave hard working leaders to explore the many facets of life there. This meant exploring recovery from the devastation of over 25 years of war, including programs that de-mine the land and educate civilians about what to do if they see a landmine; going to the Red Cross center to learn about their program of making prosthesis for land mine victims as well as giving them physical therapy and vocational training; participating in the March 8th International Women’s Day festivities; meeting with women leaders who have been fighting to get Afghan women their rights; going to training centers where women are taught tailoring and embroidery so they will be able to work on their own and gain economic freedom; meeting women who are giving out micro-loans to women so they can open their own businesses and most importantly traveling to schools where girls are being educated again, after years under the Taliban when they were forbidden from attending school and even leaving the house.

After meeting with so many people I wish I could give you a prognosis for Afghanistan’s future. Unfortunately nothing is so simple. The success of the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan depends on many interlocking baby steps. In order to build long term success it is imperative that the US and other foreign governments continue to give support.

The biggest concern people have is security. Currently there is no strong central government. Instead Karzai, the president, is more like the mayor of Kabul, which has been relatively secure for a few years. Outside of Kabul, there is a strange political balance between warlords, powerful province governors and the central government located in Kabul. Largely missing from this is a central rule of law. NATO, along side of the US, is fighting in what is a more and more unstable situation. In parts of the country, troops are still engaged in full out fighting.

One situation that is heating up is the conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghans say that Pakistan is backing the Taliban in an effort to keep Afghanistan as a weak neighbor. They also say that the Taliban come from Pakistan, or at least, are Afghans who have lived in the refugee camps in Pakistan and are being protected within Pakistan’s borders. US policy is to clear out those refugee camps since we see them as terrorist training camps and when they clear them they send the "terrorists" back into Afghanistan to destabilize it.

In short, people seem to fear that anything little thing could set everything out of balance or at least stagnate the progress that has been going on since 2001. Even since we have come back a whole group of government ministers have been replaced.

Afghanistan is full of contrasts: In a country where signs of women’s lower status can be seen everywhere, the laws of the country and of Islam are very favorable to women. In fact, Afghanistan has long standing laws that make men and women equal under the law. But on the other side of that, you have to have judges that defend those laws and you have to have women who are educated enough to even know that they are protected under the law.

In the new constitution, it mandated that 25% of the members of parliament must be women. I think this means that Afghanistan has more women in the national government then any other nation in the world. And yet, most women are illiterate and outside the cities and the rich provinces, there are no schools for them or their fathers won’t let them attend.

Many times women are treated more like slaves than wives and daughters. Even in Kabul, I’d say at least 50% of women still wear burqas in public and in the outer provinces, these numbers are much higher. Many women are not allowed to leave their homes and don’t interact with anyone outside of their family, which keeps them from knowing their rights at all. For those who do work outside the home, their husbands often control the money and their freedom. Divorce is almost unheard of because the community doesn’t except it. If I women runs away, she is promptly returned home to be beaten some more and many times even killed for disgracing the family.

Many charities are sprouting up to address these issues. We went to a wonderful agency
named PARWAZ that gives out micro-loans to groups of women to start businesses. Not only does the small amount of seed money help bring financial support to their families, but it is getting women out of the house and working with other women. For many this is the first time they interact with people outside their family. This empowers them and gives better role models to their children. It also gives places to disseminate information about their rights.

Literacy is being addressed at many levels. Programs are teaching adult women to read at the same time they are coming in for vocation training in skills like sewing, jewelry making or beauty salon skills. And as important, schools have been opened to educate the girls who grew up under the Taliban. One group of schools runs year around and lets older girls complete lower grades in a supportive environment. Girls up to the age of 16 can be found in 1st grade. They would not be comfortable going to a regular school since they are older but at these schools they can complete two grades in one year and make up for lost time.

Alumni of past Global Exchange delegations support this charity which is called Afghans for Tomorrow (A4T) and we were able to visit three of their schools. In each visit I was brought to tears by the way we were received. Bright energetic girls were working hard and were so happy to have a chance to learn. They all thanked us for caring about them and for providing a school where they could learn. Today they have dreams to become teachers and doctors. These dreams were not even thinkable before 2001.

One thing is certain about our presence there. The Afghan women really appreciate the support they are getting from Western women. We met with the minister of women’s affairs and she sees us as a key to their future. She is grateful for all the visitors she has gotten and all the programs that are possible because of our support.

The message was clear that the most important cog in the wheel of women’s progress is education and it is very important for the West to keep sending their support to make sure more and more schools are built. The minister of women’s affairs put it in a clear way. If there are 200 million US women and they each gave one dollar, they would be able to create schools for all the Afghan women. I plan to support them, because I have seen first hand what a huge different a small amount of money can mean.

All in all I had a wonderful time learning about the situation and soaking up the atmosphere. I was able to see first hand what is going on in an extremely important world conflict. Many people call the conflict in Afghanistan, the US’s forgotten war. I hope with my new knowledge I can remind people of its importance.

Put simply by Dr. Roshanak, one of the new female members of parliament, "The world is now a village. We cannot ignore the problems in one part of the world, for they will spread to other parts of the world." The world needs to help Afghanistan rebuild and recover or their current culture of violence will spread back to us. This is a winnable war. With the appropriate level of commitment we can stabilize Afghanistan. This commitment is for our benefit since a healthy Afghanistan should be an integral part of our anti-terrorism strategy.

If any of this inspires you to help the women of Afghanistan, consider making a donation. You can learn more at or feel free to ask me any questions. I could talk about all this stuff 24 hours a day!

And you can’t really get a feel for Afghanistan until you get mesmerized with the diverse and beautiful faces so check out my photos to see more. Also you will get a little bonus since there are also photos from my few days in Dubai.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey roomie! Nice blog, good wrap-up.