The Common Good

Afghanistan: Women and Children First

It may be too idealistic to believe that one day the U.S. will elect a pacifist as president or that Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be convicted by the wise words of Dispatch. Perhaps we will never see President Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, and Taliban leaders join efforts over tea for a better Afghanistan. But while eight years of war have mutilated Afghanistan's infrastructure, President Obama is accused of "dithering," and attacks on internal civilians continue, what is to be said of the lives of the average Afghan citizen during this violent eight-year occupation and in the aftermath? Particularly, what is to be said for children, who lack control of the situation but who are the most vulnerable to the outcome?

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In light of this reality, I am challenged to envision what legacy is woven for the youth of Afghanistan by U.S. policy and by the 68,000 U.S. troops expected for deployment at the close of 2009. I am called to question: Are our actions as a nation changing the violent climate or adding to it?

I was struck by the wisdom shared in Brian McLaren's Open Letter on Afghanistan, in which he suggests resolution is based on taking the $65 billion slated for war and reinvesting in Afghanistan's infrastructure. He points out that this "could give hope to a lot of women and girls who currently don't have much hope, and it could provide a lot of constructive outlets for men and boys who now don't have many options besides picking up a machine gun and joining a warlord." With humanitarian and aid programs already at risk, the U.S. should focus on uplifting grassroots groups and NGOs that are focused on uplifting the infrastructure as a whole.

What we are seeing, instead, is that this same survivor mentality that caused people to embrace the Taliban is also encouraging them to be self-reliant in their own community development -- safety, gender equality, and education, particularly of girls and of the development of a new generation of women leaders. In 2006, the Afghanistan Compact called for a net enrollment of 60% for primary school girls and a 50% increase in female teachers by 2010, in line with the country's MDGs for gender equality. However, in order to reach this and other goals by 2020, the country will have to enroll five girls for every three boys at the primary stage, and three girls for every one boy at the secondary stage.

This disparity, worsened by threats and attacks on schoolgirls, has created a network of underground schools for girls to spring up throughout the countryside and in city centers like Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar. These schools are evidence of a people resolute to overcome the political and religious status quo set at low bar by the Taliban. They are not concerned with statistics, ideas, or qualitative arguments about gender equality; they are concerned with the safety and education of the girls we only glimpse through plasma screen -- their daughters, their nieces, and their sisters. In order to address the question of security and counterinsurgency, the U.S. must first look at the state of affairs and the people behind the screen.

"The only positive outcome of conflict is social awareness," said Afghanistan's former Minister of Education, Mohammed Haneef Atmar. Following the example of the families and individuals who risk their lives in pursuit of education and a better Afghanistan, let's open our eyes in this spirit of awareness. The only hope of changing the climate is to support the grassroots that insist on solutions more creative than continued war.

If you are interested in learning more about secret schools for girls in Afghanistan, I recommend listening to this fascinating piece from NPR or reading this article from the UK's Independent. For nurturing socially aware children and classrooms, share with them this beautifully illustrated book, Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan.

Laurel Frodge is a former Sojourners intern who now works for a development nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

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