Category Archives: vision and organization

Jewelry in a War Zone? Collaboration for the Women of the World

Talisman. def: an object held to act as a charm, avert evil and bring good fortune

My talisman is a silver ring that I’ve had for several years. It’s now scratched and has a small dent but I wear it every day because of the words inscribed upon the silver.

Words have power. We use them to express feeling and invoke emotion. Words can rally the masses, rage against injustice and soothe a broken heart. Time and time again, we return to familiar passages, quotes and phrases to remind us of how others described what we have felt.

I am a lover of the power of words. I surround myself with quotes from Churchill, poetry from Hafiz and the words of great orators, philosophers and writers to inspire and push me forward.

Several years ago my family gave me the silver ring that has become my talisman – a piece from San Francisco designer, Jeanine Payer. The inscription by Longfellow reads, “the lowest ebb is at the turn of the tide.”

They gave it to me to remind me to be strong, follow my heart and believe that the tide would one day turn. I had recently cashed in all of my meager personal funds to launch a nonprofit called Mountain2Mountain, an organization dedicated to empowering the women and children of Afghanistan. I had a two-year-old daughter and I was taking a huge personal risk. Nevertheless, I decided to set the best possible example for my daughter by investing in the belief that I could build a sustainable organization that could benefit women and girls for generations to come. I’ve never looked back.

There is an unusual strength that comes from wearing the words that inspire us. The power of words in a tangible form, present on our bodies, is like a whisper in your ear, “be strong, be brave, don’t give up”.

Jewelry is not the first thing anyone would normally reach for when selecting an appropriate wardrobe to take to a warzone. But it has been for me. I’ve worn that ring on every trip to Afghanistan. Jeanine didn’t know it at the time, but she was with me through multiple trips, under burqas in Kandahar, sleeping in village homes, and inside women’s prisons. She rode a buzkashi horse, fished in the Panjshir river, and was there when I became the first woman to mountainbike in Afghanistan. She has survived suicide bombs and gun attacks. Her ring and those words have protected and inspired me through it all.

The ring has been a constant reminder that the turn of the tide is always coming, wave after wave, day after day. Today the ring is criss-crossed with scatches and has a small dent, but even that reminds me of everything I have accomplished, with Mountain2Mountain, and as a mother.

It’s always with me, not like a lucky pair of socks, but as a powerful amulet bestowing courage and hope even in the darkest of times. Its words inspire my next steps, linking my future actions to the words I wear.

A few years ago, on my birthday, my parents gave me a pair of Jeanine’s earrings. “I dwell in possibility,” they say. While I don’t wear them as often, I smile every time I slide them on. Every time I wear them, I dwell in possibility. They remind me that everything and anything is possible if I am willing to forge ahead.

A few months ago I reached out to Jeannie to share the story of my ring and thank her for all it’s meant to me. I asked if she understood the power of her designs and the inscriptions. She sent me a link from People magazine that talked about the power of words and talismans. She is keenly aware that aware that words can spark change and inspire courage.

In honor of the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, Jeannie has agreed to collaborate with me on three pieces of jewelry to benefit Mountain2Mountain’s work to create gender equity and girls’ education in Afghanistan. She has designed five beautiful pieces that are powerful representations of the courage of women all around the world. Her designs are inscribed with these words:

“Courage, strength, and hope possess my soul…I will stand firmly and without fear.” – Goethe

“When its dark, you can see the stars” – Persian proverb

…and, in honor of the power of my own talisman, she has reintroduced the Longellow quote from the ring she designed several years ago. The one I wear:

“The lowest ebb is at the turn of the tide”

It is my sincere hope that our collaboration, the power of these words, and the proceeds that go to help us empower more women and girls in Afghanistan will help lead to a turning of the tide in women’s rights all around the world.

Take a look. Wear the words. Stand firm, and dwell in the possible.

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Streets of Afghanistan – A Cultural Exhibition

One of the most important things we can do as a non-profit organization is to make a connection. Not just between donors and projects, but between communities and individuals. Working in Afghanistan makes that connection very difficult to achieve.

Time and time again, people travel to the far-flung corners of the world, and come back changed forever. Touched by the people they met, the smells, the food, the landscape, they become connected in a visceral way. The people that have lived and worked in Afghanistan have that visceral connection, but it is not a place we can take donor trips to or host student exchanges.

Couple the lack of security with the media coverage of the war on terror, and the stereotypes built around a nation that has endured nearly forty years of conflict, and it becomes even more difficult to connect to the real Afghanistan. Mountain2Mountain was founded on the idea that we can create a ripple effect of change and compassion by connecting communities and cultures.

Out of that founding principle, Streets of Afghanistan was born. A multimedia exhibition that unites Afghan and Western photographers and videographers to bring a little piece of Afghanistan into our world for one night. Visitors walk amongst 10×8 foot high images and video projections that recreate the market streets in Kabul. The rolling green hills captured by photographer Beth Wald, look more akin to Norway than Afghanistan until you notice the yak train in the corner. It creates a different sense of place than the deserts and dusty landscapes usually associated with the region. The beauty, and the dichotomy of that beauty, set against the destruction and history takes your breath away.

The signature image of the exhibition, is a woman covered in a burqa sitting with her child in her lap, begging in the middle of the road. The image captures both the pain and beauty of Afghanistan; juxtaposing the dream-like quality of the country and its residents, against the ravaging effects of three decades of conflict and war. Photographer Tony Di Zinno captured the image from an oncoming car — lensing the feeling of impending contact. In reality, the driver stopped when he came to the woman and handed her some food from the kebab stand he had just visited for lunch.

Interspersed amongst the landscapes and streets, seven-foot-high portraits of women greet visitors. Images of teachers, students, police officers, ministers of parliament, mothers, and victims of self-immolations show the diversity of the women of Afghanistan — their beauty and strength in a country known for its oppression. Walking, ghost-like, through the crowd the images, and the video projections of market scenes and rural life, are real women dressed in the different colored burqas of Afghanistan.

Art has the power to change. Streets of Afghanistan aims to do just that; open hearts and minds in an effort to combat apathy with compassion. “Dare to believe in our common humanity” is not just our tagline — its a call to action. Come join us!

Streets of Afghanistan opens in Denver with a one day event at the Denver Art Museum on April 28, 2011, followed by an event at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art as it begins its journey as a traveling cultural exhibition.


photo by Di Zinno

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Street Art – An Afghan Voice Emerging?

Something new is in the streets of Kabul.

Increased security?  Check

Lakes of mud and sewage?  Check

Street art?  Check?

Street art, stencil art specifically, has popped up on several walls across Kabul over the past year.

Under the cover of night they take to the streets of Kabul, armed with stencils, spray paint and cameras.   The youth of Afghanistan are finding their voice.

Tanks, soldiers, dollar signs, poppies, refugees, students in school, helicopters, Talibs, and question marks are assembled into equations – giving Afghans and Westerners alike a reason to stop in curious wonder and think. The ‘unknown’ taggers created the question, “Chand Ast?”. In stencil art. Translated from Dari to English it means “How Much?”  — an effort to challenge all of us about the Cost of War.

The anonymous artists are part of Combat Communications, a group of artists and musicians in Kabul that started Afghanistan’s stencil art movement to increase awareness and inspire conversation about the cost of war.  As in much street art around the world, there is a strong undercurrent of activism.

Mountain2Mountain has teamed with Combat Communications and Cultures of Resistance to work with Afghanistan’s next generation of artists.  We will begin in two weeks with a workshop with London street artist, Chu, and Kabul University art students called “This is Afghanistan”.

Street art is any art created in a public spaces and it goes far beyond the stereotype of graffiti and wall tagging by vandals and gangs.  Its purpose is to question the current environment and inspire dialogue about socially relevant topics.  Street art has proved that it a powerful platform by challenging existing paradigms and fueling resistance movements all over the world.  Banksy’s iconic images on the walls of the West Bank attracted international attention and brought street art into the spotlight.  And this year’s iconic $100,000 TED prize, given to one “charitably minded person who works to change the world” went to 27 year-old street artist JR, a guerilla artist from Paris who installs his massive work across the world’s poorest slums and refugee camps.

“JR’s mind-blowing creations have inspired people to see art where they wouldn’t expect it and create it when they didn’t know they could,” stated TED prize director, Amy Novogratz.

Street art has become a recognized and integral part of the art world as the work of international street artists like Banksy, Ash, and Shepard Fairey have become must-have pieces in many private art collections.

What does this have to do with Afghanistan?  It comes down to the root of street art.  Freedom.  Expression.  A voice.  A point of view.  Youth culture has always been rooted in these ideals.  But the youth in Afghanistan have grown up under the darkness of the Taliban, without art, music, sports, and a robust cultural ife or the freedom to develop one of their own.  Their voice has yet to fully emerge.

If we want to see real, sustainable change in countries like Afghanistan, we have to look to the next generation.  They need to find their inspiration, their culture, and their voice.  The need to develop a community and see themselves in the future of their own country.  They need to get involved and rediscover their passion for their country and their vision for its future.

Art is one part of the solution.  Join us.

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Progress in Afghanistan? The Youth Movement in Kabul.

As the US enters its ten-year of active engagement in Afghanistan, a polarizing debate intensifies regarding our continued involvement.  Rather than enter the weary fray of should we/shouldn’t we, I offer up a different window into the future of a country plagued by nearly 40 years of conflict and destruction.  The youth.

Young adults living in Afghanistan today, grew up under the oppressive regime of the Taliban.  Their brutally oppressed formative years that banned music, sport, art, and education have collided with the past ten spent crawling out from under the dark blanket that covered the entire country.  A decade later, they are living their lives every day under great strain, never knowing if their country will one day be at peace again, but determined to find their own voice in amongst the rubble that surrounds them.   The capital city of Kabul is home to a select few that have chosen to shake off the apathy and find their voice, and in doing so, are sowing the seeds of tomorrow’s generation.

1. Kabul Dreams.  The first Afghan rock band, played in public last fall for the first time, and since then, have become a force in the Kabul youth scene.  They are the first to publically part ways with the steadfast tradition of cultural music, and are creating quite a fanclub in the process.  Not unlike the changes rock music made in our country when it emerged, it’s controversial and powerful.  The next Elvis?  Probably not.  But seeing them perform is incredible, if not just for their music, but for the audience’s reaction when they cut loose.

2. Kabul Girls Soccer Club.   In the same stadium that was famous for beheading women and using their heads as footballs, its an inspiring sight to see girls playing football.  Ghazni stadium is home to a growing group of girls that play and compete in tournaments outside of Afghanistan, assuming visas are granted and uniforms can be rounded up.  Highlighted in the book, Kabul Girls Soccer Club by Awista Ayub, eight original girls started playing in 2004.  Today, close to 200 hundred play in the Afghanistan Football Federation – challenging perceptions of women and sport.

4.  Sabrina Sagheb.  Afghanistan’s youngest female parliamentary candidate ran an outspoken campaign in last month’s election.  Female candidates are always at risk, but 25-year-old Sabrina didn’t let the risk quiet her voice. “If elected I will face up to the old men with guns that destroyed our country.  Now it is our turn to fight with them.”  Votes are still being counted and she’s a longshot, but her willingness to stand up, speak up, and be heard will inspire more women to take up the fight for years to come.

4.  Afghan Star.   Afghanistan’s Tolo TV had its first big hit in the reality television series, Afghan Star based off our own, American Idol.  A documentary by the same name came out in 2008 and won acclaim at Sundance Film Festival.  It showcased the men and women that auditioned from around the country to compete, often at great risk.  The country as a whole responded with fervor, and voting for idol stars crossed ethnic lines that government elections have so far failed to do.

6.  Skateistan.  A NGO launched in 2007 by three Austrailians that teaches boys and girls, young and old to skateboard.  Kabul has very little in terms of smooth roads or sidewalks, so they raised the funds for a skatepark which opened at Ghazni stadium.  Kids spent a few hours in a safe environment, off the streets, learning to nail an ollie, or take on the halfpipe.  Can’t be long before they’re picking up the slang and riding the rails.  Any future for an Afghan X-Games?

This is a real country, with real people, with a real youth movement. Just because there is daily violence, and an ongoing war, doesn’t mean that real life doesn’t continue, that normalcy shouldn’t be encouraged, and that we can’t focus projects that embolden, strengthen, and inspire the future generation to stay in Afghanistan and give voice to its future.

In fact, considering the generations of conflict, it’s all the more reason to galvanize the youth out of their apathy and support those youth movements that are burgeoning.  It can do more for stability than we can possibly know.

Panjshir Tour – Afghanistan and Beyond

October 2009 – the first female rode a mountain bike in Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan.   One year later I returned to be the first to attempt to ride the entire Panjshir Valley, from the gates of Panjshir that mark the entrance to the province, straight through to the imposing 14,000 foot Anjuman Pass.   I wanted to break stereotypes of what Afghanistan really is beyond the ongoing conflict.   We videoed to show the incredible beauty of Afghanistan and the reaction of those we met along the way – Panjshiris that were surprised, excited, and gracious.  Click here to see the video!

2 days, 132km, and 14 hours of steady uphill riding passed through breathtaking mountains surrounding a land where time has stood still.   Security issues in the form of neighboring provincial gun runners, made it impossible to push on for the third and final day of climbing up to the top of the pass.  But that was hardly the point.  Along the way, boys and men raced me on their bikes as we shared the road with cars, motorcycles, sheep, and the occasional camel.  Old men with large turbans stopped in every village to smile, wave, and shout greetings and often offers of tea at their home.  Road construction workers took my bike for a spin after I had walked it across a dodgy looking bridge.  All of this in a country known as a dangerous war zone where women are not allowed to ride bikes anymore.  Every face I encountered was one of smiles, encouragement, and curiosity.

This Sunday, a mere 6 days later, 8 communities in the United States will be riding their bikes in support of Mountain2Mountain’s projects in Afghanistan.  Dubbed the Panjshir Tour, each ride raises money through the power of the pedal to support projects with the deaf community, rural midwife training, and girls education.

SO!  Get your bike lubed up and join us THIS Sunday, October 3rd – be part of this inaugural series of grassroots rides and help us grow it for next year!

Rides are on in California, Colorado, Washington DC, Oregon, and New York!  We need your help, we need your muscles, and we need your sweat equity to change the lives of women and girls and the future of Afghanistan for generations to come!

Want to learn more and find out where you can ride and how to register?  Click here!!

photo credit:  Travis Beard

Transparent Trust

The conversation of donor trust has been on mind lately.

Donors are the enablers.  They enable our development, our projects, our programs to get off the whiteboard and into reality.  Without funding, our programs couldn’t be implemented, much less flourish over generations.  Donors are the ‘man behind the curtain’.  Without them, we would only be talking, and we’d much rather be DOING.

Yet it’s a huge leap of faith when a donor commits his or her money to an organization that they are not connected to.  Hell, its a huge leap of faith to give money to your own brother/sister/uncle/cousin.  The donor is saying, “I trust you with my hard-earned money.  I believe you will use this money wisely to change lives, empower communities, and make the world a better place.”   It is up to us, as an organization, to inspire trust by our words.  Develop trust by our actions.  Sustain trust by our transparency.

Our founding ethos was to connect communities and cultures within our projects.  Creating dialogues and cultural exchanges.  In short, making sure we share our project communities with our donor communities.  It is difficult when we are operating halfway around the world, in a country surviving nearly 4 decades of conflict, to bring donors into our project communities.   Video, photography, and documentation become integral to showing donors how their money is spent and who it is affecting.  Art and photography exchanges between US and Afghan classrooms is another connection and one that allows us to connect students specifically.

In addition, collaboration is one of our core values.  We work closely with local organizations and communities to create sustainable programs.

Collaboration is key in conflict regions.  We seek advice, and often partner with other NGO’s, local organizations, business partners, and the like to make sure we use money effectively and wisely, but also to make sure that our projects can have accountability outside of our organization.  Ensuring that more than one perspective has been heard when making decisions, and more than one set of eyes sees our projects.

We are not infallible.  Mistakes will be made, but we will own up to mistakes, learn from them, and work to ensure they don’t reoccur.  Sweeping our mistakes under a carpet will not help us grow as an organization, or help nurture trust with donors.

This full disclosure relates to the financial documentation as well.  Financial disclosure through our 990’s posted online and our financial statements upon request.  Board members that can understand the breadth and depth of our projects and overall vision, that can speak openly with donors.  Board members that have a say in our long-term strategy and work to provide oversight to ensure we stay on track.

I believe that if we can grow Mountain2Mountain with an internal and external policy of open communication and transparency, we can develop bonds with our donors and projects that will build a sustainable organization to support the women and children of Afghanistan for generations to come.

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An Army of Women

Hilary Clinton wrote the book and thus coined the phrase, “It Takes a Village”.

In our case, I’d argue it takes an army.

Not a military one.  An army of women.  A battalion of passionate mothers, daughters, and sisters, that are willing to sacrifice time, money, and energy to be crusaders of gender equity and human rights.

The time of turning a blind eye, of ignoring the headlines, or saying, “but what can I do about it?” has passed.  The time for change is now.

No longer can we ignore the women raped around the world, the girls trafficked across borders for prostitution, or the unplanned babies born to both.   Women and girls traded as commodities and used like a disposable, empty, object.

No more can we dismiss genital mutilation, ironing breasts, or other torturous concepts that put the blame of rape and childhood pregnancy on the women, instead of punishing the men that perpetrate the crimes.  Mutilating women to stem sexual assault just adds insult to injury.

It is not acceptable that as women living in the West, enjoying the freedoms women before us fought for, that we do not rally, advocate, and work to ensure that women EVERYWHERE have these freedoms.

It is not enough to shout against the injustice done to women across the globe.

Action is the key.  As women, we must act.  As mothers, sisters, daughters, we must act.

We must build schools, train women, employ women, support women.  Provide education and healthcare to women.  Advocate against violence and mutilation practices.

Action, a forward momentum, an effort to make a change.  Little steps by the masses create large ripples that change lives.

John F. Kennedy stated, “One person can make a difference and EVERYONE must try.”  One woman on her own, can change several lives if she commits.   An army of committed women can change the world.

photo by Di Zinno

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Renewable Energy Provides Solutions in Afghanistan

Green technology, renewable energy, sustainable and energy-efficient construction.  These words are still cutting-edge in the West, but they are also integral to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Most have gotten used to the idea that development work and reconstruction means ugly concrete blocks, built for function, not design.  Many more take limited view that technology such as solar and wind power are novelties in a war zone, not necessity.

Yet function, design, and sustainability should be commonplace in development and reconstruction work.   Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m a daughter of an architect that makes the above statement resonate so deeply.  Perhaps its the love of the outdoors and tragedy of waste, and short-term, disposable solutions that pollute our environment.  Regardless, its the approach I’d like to see in all development work. Work that most often takes places in countries that have the worst pollution, worst access to electricity, and ugliest construction.

Our goal with all of our projects within Mountain2Mountain is to run a green thread throughout with the intention of partnering with sustainable partners that can help us achieve our goals with sustainable, minimalist impact, especially in a country as ‘impacted’ as Afghanistan.

One of our first partners, GOAL0, has launched an incredible product that addresses renewable energy in a portable package.  Field tested in the Congo on humanitarian projects, they have found ways to provide reliable and portable renewable power sources that eliminate the barriers to progress.   I now use their portable, Sherpa 120, a portable solar panel and power pack when I travel to remote areas, and its small enough to carry in my messenger bag or backpack along with my other necessities.

In supporting our projects, we discovered that we could use one of their other projects, the Scout Explorer Kit, to provide light for our midwives that live in rural village without electricity for nighttime deliveries.   The kit looks like a thin briefcase with a thermos and two lights.  The briefcase is the solar panel and the thermos is the power supply.  The two lights provide adequate light for the midwives to work safely and save lives.  The majority of rural deliveries in Afghanistan are done at home with no birth attendants, medicine, supplies, or light, and consequently Afghanistan suffers from the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.  Mountain2Mountain takes a decentralized approach to the problem with a village-based training program for local women to become skilled birth attendants.  Upon completion, we provide them with a basic birthing kit which includes the Scout to provide a reliable light source for their work.

Our other partner lies in the realm of construction.  Innovida and IHFD partnered to help support the construction of our school for the deaf  in Kabul.  Using Innovida’s innovative green technology in the construction process ensures a quickly built, energy-efficient, and a green alternative to tradition building methods.  They also create a designbuild based on our floorplan so that there is minimal waste of the building materials, but without creating a ‘big box’.

Creating an eyesore that is functional doesn’t inspire.  It doesn’t add value.  It doesn’t show a country its worth as it rebuilds.

IHFD’s use of GeoBricks for our security wall uses a new technology to address the traditional brick and mortar structural needs.  The bricks are energy-efficient, fireproof, non combustible, fireproof, and bulletproof (a useful consideration for a security wall in Afghanistan)  They are also providing solar, wind, and hydro solutions to the electricity issue prevalent in Afghanistan where electricity is still unstable at best, and non-existant in many communities.  Diesel generators run constantly adding to the soot and petrol that permeates every breath you take.

Utilizing the solar, wind, and hydro solutions can provide our projects, and the Afghans sustainable energy for generations to come.  In addition, they are working with Kabul University to set up a renewable energy degree so that future generations of electricians can have the skill set to not only install, but maintain country-wide solar grids.

Function, sustainable power, and design all covered in our approach. As we continue to find partners that can help us solve problems and build schools, it is imperative that we look forward to the future generations that will be affected by what we do now.  Just because Afghanistan has been destroyed over decades of conflict, and needs country-wide rebuilding, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be looking at all the tools in our arsenal to build energy-efficient and sustainable projects that can endure for generations.

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Simple Solutions to Save Women’s Lives

You would think there would be more of an uproar in a country with the highest maternal death rates.  No other country in the world loses more women in childbirth than Afghanistan.  None.   Rarely has being first at something meant so much loss.

It’s not just the women either, lest you callously chalk it up to the inevitable argument over women’s oppression in a country like Afghanistan where women set themselves on fire to escape arranged marriages, rapist go free, victims go to jail, and women die in childbirth when a male doctor lives just 10 minutes down the road, because he is unable to view her naked or worse yet, touch her.

The children too are dying at alarming rates.  Skirting at the top of the heap, currently in the second position when I last checked, of the highest infant death rates in the world.  Babies die from suffocation when they a nasal suction would clear out their mouth and nose post delivery.  Babies die of dehydration when they are given dirty water instead of breast milk.  Babies die common colds due to harsh winters with little to keep them warm.

All three causes are easily rectified.  As are many of the major causes of the mother’s deaths.  Dirty knives that cut the umbilical cord and cause infection.  Inability to deliver the placenta causes the woman to bleed out.

Lack of a few simple medicines, lack of pre or post natal care, lack of female doctors equal death on a large-scale in a country already suffering from something akin to country-wide post traumatic stress disorder due to nearly four decades of war and incredible loss of life that has affected every family.   In short, many of these deaths are preventable, and families crave midwives even areas that they won’t yet education girls.

Midwife training schools exist in nearly every province to address this situation and the Afghan Minister of Public Health touts its success.  Successful for cities and larger communities, yes.  But this 2 year program rarely spreads far.

Lack of education makes a trickle down effect nearly impossible.  A unique village-to-village approach is needed to save lives in rural communities.   The reason?   Girls must have a 9th grade education to attend midwife training.  Those that have the education, must then have the permission from their father or husband to leave their community for 2 years to attend training.  In the rare case that education, permission and scholarship is available, and the girl attends school, she will return to her community to live.  A wonderful solution for THAT village and she will do much for her community’s welfare, but what about the communities that do have educated girls to send?

It is extremely rare that a girl would return from school to a village other than her own.  So the villages that don’t have girls educated to 9th grade, a rarity in many regions, have no hope to train girls from within their own village.

So, the solution?  Train women and girls with low levels of education, to be skilled birth attendants.  Teach them the simple solutions that save lives that you or I could learn in 4 short weeks.  Teach them basic sanitation and have them educate their village.  Teach them how to administer basic medicines and vaccinations.  Pay them a small stipend to work in their village.   As the village thrives, and the women earn money for their family, the value of women increases and deaths decrease.

A great example of this cultural shift occurred in a remote mountain village in the Panjshir.  We had ongoing discussions about building a girls primary school, and the elders were reticent.  When we shared our other program, rural midwife training, their eyes lit up and questions and stories flew around the room as I struggled to keep up with their pace.  Upon realizing that we couldn’t train illiterate women, and the knowledge that there wasn’t one single literate woman or girl in the village, we ended the discussion.  The next morning, fifteen men met me with green tea and said they would like to pursue the original discussion of a girls school.

Often it’s illustrating the way girls and women can contribute to the general welfare of the community that makes the rational argument for their health, worth, and their education.

Our first training begins with women from two Taliban-controlled provinces.  Where women have long suffered under oppression, but where even there, the lives of women and their offspring have value enough to save, but no one to save them.

Until now.

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Hand in Hand in Afghanistan

The news broke that President Obama had accepted General McChrystal’s offer of resignation an hour before I was scheduled to do a live interview on CNN about Mountain2Mountain and our work to create education and opportunity for the women and children of Afghanistan .  We watched the news all morning, waiting to hear if the interview would be bumped and engaged in a discussion about how NGOs relate to the US military presence in Afghanistan.  We wondered about how the change in leadership will affect us and talked about the important relationship between the military and aid organizations.

While we do not work with the military directly, President Obama’s decisions about military leadership and strategies in Afghanistan do have a direct impact on us.  We follow the news closely, knowing that our relationship with the military is a symbiotic one; the success of one mission is tied to progress toward the other. Our work with women and children in Afghanistan would be almost impossible without the presence of international security forces.

And we believe that our work, and the work of other NGOs in Afghanistan is a direct deterrent to the insurgency.  If a family starts to thrive, the village begins to thrive, and that ripples through an entire tribal area and province.  Healthy communities are more likely to stand up to threats from the Taliban than those that are teetering on the edge of survival.  Today, many are easily manipulated, bullied and coerced into supporting the insurgency.  But if we work to provide healthcare, plant crops, repair roads, educate children, and create jobs, local communities will have something valuable to protect from the Taliban.

As a non-profit aid organization, we work independently of the military and the government.  Our goal is to implement programs and projects that are focused on education, training, and job creation in Afghanistan.  We believe that women and girls are world’s most underutilized resource and can be significant agents of change in conflict regions across the globe. But our task is not easy in a country entering its fourth decade of conflict with one of the worst records on the planet for women’s rights and gender equity.

It is incredibly difficult to operate safely inside Afghanistan.  If the array of countries providing security, training Afghan soldiers and fighting the Taliban insurgency weren’t there, our ability to educate women and girls, train rural midwives, build schools or even travel the country would be severely impaired.  Many aid organizations rely on the military to travel safely through Taliban-controlled areas by helicopter or convoy.

But the safety of aid workers isn’t the only issue.  In many cases, the international forces work directly with the locals to develop leadership from within communities and provide mentorship.  One example is at a prison in Maimana in the northern Jawzjan province.  Here the Norwegian military has a presence and their local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) helped with the women’s prison we are working with today.

In many prisons we’ve visited, women are jailed with their young. The treatment cannot be described as humane.  There are not enough clothes or food, and all too often the female prisoners are raped by the prison guards paid to watch over them.  Remarkably, the Norwegian PRT came in and worked with the prison commander to address these and other concerns.  They built a separate prison building for the women with a small courtyard and separate, clean sleeping facilities.  They flew the prison commander and his staff to Norway to visit the open-air prisons and to the United States to learn how other prisons are run and how prisoners could be treated humanely despite being jailed.

This work paved the way for our visit.  We were received warmly by the Afghan commander and given full access to talk with the women, take photos.  Eventually, we were able to set up a kindergarten for the children and a vocational training program for the women.   Contrast that with prisons that haven’t had that sort of mentorship the PRT provided. Access is denied, commanders are cagey, and we are often not allowed to speak privately with the women.

The relationship is reciprocated as aid organizations help rebuild and create sustainable, functioning communities on the heels of the military.  In an article written for Joint Force Quarterly, a military publication, Admiral Mike Mullen said that US efforts in Afghanistan to send a positive message about US military action and development efforts hurt US credibility when they do not coincide with what the populace sees on the ground.  He went on to say that the gap between promised and actual improvements harms the credibility of the US message.

Aid organizations work to ensure that communities in Afghanistan can see the value of the internationals forces.  They help change perceptions based on decades of conflict.  Instead of occupier it is possible to become a collaborator, community builder and vital service provider.  We can go from enemy to ally.  If communities in the areas worst hit by the ravages of war and poverty are given support through health care, education, agricultural development, and reconstruction of roads, bridges and buildings, the Afghan people see a partner with a willingness to help them claw their way back and build healthy, thriving communities.

Large development agencies can repair roads, build clinics, and make sweeping structural changes.  Small, grassroots organizations like Mountain2Mountain are limited by funding, but tend to operate in a more person-to-person, village-to-village approach.  We focus on bringing training to local women to deliver babies, building girls schools, training teachers and creating women’s co-ops that allow widowed women an opportunity at survival in a male-dominated culture.

A change in military leadership always presents a few unknowns, but with General Petraeus at the helm it is bound to be a relatively smooth transition.  He has overseen the Afghanistan blueprint and is intimately familiar with the region.  In Iraq, Gen. Petraeus implemented rules of engagement that reduced civilian casualties, which increased local support. At the same time, these new rules of engagement gave more latitude to local commanders than the current rules in Afghanistan.  This allows for faster decision-making on the ground.  It is widely viewed that the General’s experience in Iraq will be invaluable in addressing the current strategy in Afghanistan.

As an article in the Vancouver Sun stated last weekend, women will be the first casualties of any surrender in Afghanistan.  I agree.  Our work depends on the international forces not surrendering, not turning their backs on the women and children of Afghanistan.  This has happened once already.  We must persevere from all sides and work together to make the sustainable, lasting, generational changes that ensure a stable future for both Afghanistan and our own country.

Published on HuffingtonPost June 25, 2010

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