Holding out hope for Afghan women

Whenever I think the situation in Afghanistan is beyond hopeless, I am forced to remember the women and children there.

As the segment on Afghanistan in the five-part PBS series, “Women, War and Peace,” points out, women are struggling to maintain the rights they regained – at least on paper — after the harsh Taliban rule ended a decade ago. You can check out the series at http://to.pbs.org/iyhB6t.

Much of the documentary focuses on the attempts by Afghan women to play a role in the 2010 peace process of the Karzai government. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a United Methodist, promoted their participation. “The work of Afghan women and civil society groups will be essential to this country’s success,” she says during one of the peace conferences. If women and civil groups are silenced and pushed to the margins, she adds, “the prospects for peace and justice will be subverted.”

David Wildman, a United Methodist who has visited Afghanistan numerous times, believes Afghan women are not benefiting from the continuing presence of U.S. and other international troops. The co-author of a 2010 book, “Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer,” Wildman told me this week that the three biggest threats to Afghan women are the warlords, the Taliban and the presence of foreign troops.

The majority of civilian casualties, he explained, are from roadside bombs placed in areas near troops. The bombs limit the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach communities and provide needed services, such as health care, to improve the lives of women.

But no one is giving up. For more than 40 years, United Methodists have worked with Afghan partners on community development issues. Current Advance projects (http://bit.ly/vgiI6a), for example, include the post-war rebuilding of homes, supporting an eye-care program and providing health care for mothers and children in the remote central highlands of Afghanistan.

As in other parts of the world, education plays a key role in moving women and girls away from the margin.

Wildman is particularly excited about an educational project in rural Laghman Province that promotes a leadership role for girls by getting the cooperation of male leaders in the area.

Writing in the July-August 2011 edition of New World Outlook (http://bit.ly/rMgOOc), he described the school, which has its own village education council, called a shura, to address particular problems.

“This year, the school leaders decided to invite two girls–one in eighth grade and one in ninth grade–to join the school’s all-male shura in order to help with issues of low attendance and quality improvement,” he wrote. “The principal and teachers selected the two girls and then met with their families, the elders in each of their respective villages, and the district officials to make sure everyone approved of their participation in the shura. Now these girls are providing leadership among the students and helping to improve the school for everyone. One day they may become teachers themselves. Soon they hope their school will become a model for others in the district and throughout their province.”

Wildman – who spoke with the girls on the same day a district government office was being bombed a few miles away – noted that the arrangement is working because it respects the cultural context of the community.

“To me, that was a great community-based model,” he told me.

And it’s another reason why we must not give up on Afghanistan.

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