Rise Up

These Humanitarians Want to End Gender Inequality in Afghanistan

Organizations like CARE are working to empower girls and break the cycle of discrimination in the war-torn region.

by Madeline Moitozo
Oct 11 2017, 5:30pm

Photo via Flickr User ResoluteSupportMedia by HMC Josh Ives/released

When Donald Trump announced his administration would deepen the United States' military involvement in Afghanistan, details on how America would measure its success or move forward were sparse. While he noted that the parameters determining military withdrawal would be judged by conditions on the ground instead of a timetable, he declined to clarify what those conditions would be.

The bottom line was more American military presence to show terrorists they can't win. In his announcement at a military base outside Washington, he made his emphasis clear, "We are not nation-building again, we are killing terrorists." Yet humanitarian and development organizations have long contended development and security go hand in hand.

According to the United Nations, 87 percent of Afghan women experience physical abuse in their lifetime and only 17 percent are literate. CARE, one of the leading humanitarian organizations working in Afghanistan since 1994, focuses on strengthening the future of the country by focusing on bridges imperative gaps affecting women and girls.

Today is International Day of the Girl. In honor of the movement to empower girls and break the cycle of discrimination,VICE Impact sat down with CARE's president, Michelle Nunn to talk about her recent visit to Afghanistan and why women are the future of a fragile nation.

VICE Impact: What are the most important elements of CARE's work in Afghanistan?

Michelle Nunn: In the last 10 years we have worked with 125,000 students in home-based schools with committees of parents. The majority of the students are girls and we work to find and train local teachers.

Watch some more video on VICE Impact:

Another area that really makes a difference is in community health work. One of the projects that I think spans the continuum between humanitarian response and development is a project that started out as a feeding program 10 years ago for widows. Now it's called the Kabul Women's Association, which has become an independent organization of 10,000 women who are fighting for their rights and helping one another. Part of that is to ensure they are supporting their daughters' journey in their education and that they can fight for their inheritance.

What's an example of the impact of how that works?

Most of these women are illiterate and are now paving the way for their daughters to go to university. One woman told me a story of how we worked with friends and colleagues from the association to get her inheritance, which had not been provided to her since her husband's death. Because of their unity and support inside the organization she has been able to fight for it. With that money, she was able to build a house and is now providing education for 100 children.

"Our focus in on the humanitarian and development dimensions, and we believe that investing in women and girls and economic development is key in building a stable future for the country."

How could Trump's military strategy impact your work there?

Attacks on schools have been increasing in recent years. In 2015 there was an 86 percent increase in attacks on schools from 2014. So we are hoping the security situation will not diminish the gains that have been made in education. Our focus in on the humanitarian and development dimensions, and we believe that investing in women and girls and economic development is key in building a stable future for the country. We are concerned that those investments will be diminished as we go forward. There have been some mixed signals from the administration on that.

You believe that women are going to be the key to the future of rebuilding the country. Let's talk about that.

When you are looking for signals of progress in Afghanistan, the safety and security situation has actually deteriorated, but you can see real progress as it relates to girls education. You can see that in the numbers, whether that's going from 1 million to 8 million students that are now enlisted in school or 9,000 to 300,000 university students and you can also see it in some of the access to health services, the maternal mortality rate. I think it's really important that there is multi-dimensional success for the country and we have to continue to invest in that. Failure to invest in that, we lose our humanitarian imperative, we continue to jeopardize the stability of the country that America has invested a lot in.

"When you are looking for signals of progress in Afghanistan, the safety and security situation has actually deteriorated, but you can see real progress as it relates to girls education."

What can the public do to make a difference?

The CARE Action Network is an opportunity for the American public to stand in solidarity with women and girls in particular. To say that it's part of our national identity to be a humanitarian and development leader, to invest in democracy and to invest when people are suffering. It's not only the right thing to do, but the best thing to do from a long-term economic perspective and national security perspective. To also ask their congressional leaders to invest in policies that recognize that.

For most people when they read about Afghanistan, a lot of it is about the conflict and insecurity, but I think it's important for people to see there is also hope and optimism. I sat in a room with 20 women from the Kabul Women's Association and I asked them if they were more or less optimistic about their children's future than their generation and they said that they were tremendously optimistic about their children's future. I went to a community-based classroom of second graders, both boys and girls in a very rural community. Somebody in the classroom asked who is the best student. I thought that is going to be an awkward situation. How are they going to answer that? But everyone immediately pointed to this little girl, and she stood right up, she knew it, too. She said she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. So you have a new generation of Afghan girls that can be the future.

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How does the education of women translate directly to a more stable future for the country?

In places like Afghanistan, experts – including legions of retired admirals and generals – agree that you have to balance hard power with investments in soft power. Bombs and bullets don't drive out the hopelessness and lack of opportunity feeding extremism. Education, jobs and health services do.

If you think about a society where women are sitting at the table around peace and conflict negotiations, you can create stability, a place where people have hope for the future.I think people will recognize that you can't create a place of stability without some of those ingredients, where people have hope for the future and the ability to earn a living and send their kids to school.