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Archive for Wednesday, March 11, 2009

U.S. must help Afghans help themselves

March 11, 2009

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The world may be collapsing, but some individuals won’t let that stop them from working for change in its most troubled corners.

International Women’s Day is a good time to spotlight two such individuals: an Afghan activist for women’s rights named Suraya Pakzad and a local businessman, Aldo Magazzeni, who builds water systems in Afghanistan for impoverished villages. His efforts, undertaken in tandem with Pakzad’s, help make village elders more sympathetic to her work.

Pakzad and Magazzeni run grass-roots outfits that are polar opposites of the huge foreign contractors that failed so badly in Iraq. At a time when the Taliban is gaining strength, these kinds of organizations need more U.S. support.

I first met Pakzad last year when she received the State Department’s Women of Courage award. A university graduate and mother of six, she started helping Afghan women in 1998 in Kabul, setting up secret girls’ schools when the Taliban banned female education.

After the Taliban fell, she established the Voice of Women Organization (VWO) and moved to the western city of Herat, where women have fewer protections. VWO promotes girls’ education, provides job training, and offers women legal and social aid.

This includes helping women in prison and providing a safe house for women abused by families or husbands, one of only five such shelters in the country. VWO also provides legal aid for women who seek divorce — in a land where women are regarded as chattel. “The definition of a good woman (in Afghan society) is to accept the violation and stay silent,” Pakzad said.

This courageous woman often receives death threats, yet the government won’t give her a security guard. Her husband and her two elder daughters support her efforts; her 15-year-old daughter thinks her efforts will be fruitless. “I’m on TV, while her friends’ mothers wear burkas,” Pakzad said.

But she presses on, because she feels change is possible and wants to help girls like Mahahba, one of 29 women and 12 children in the shelter. Mahahba was married at age 11 to a 45-year-old, who brutalized her and forced her to have sex before puberty.

Pakzad said the legal situation for Afghan women had improved, but courts and police were often unsympathetic. Her organization holds three-day workshops for police and community leaders to explain what constitutes illegal violence against women. Given the deeply religious nature of Afghan society, she shows that laws that protect women are not anti-Islamic.

She recalled, with emotion, how one community leader broke down and confessed he had forced three daughters into unhappy arranged marriages because he thought that was his male duty. Now he advocates women’s rights.

But the situation for women is deteriorating as the Taliban regains strength: “In the south of the country, girls’ schools are closed and families don’t dare to send their daughters,” she said.

The Afghan central government fails to provide security and basic services. Unless Afghans see their lives improve, they will gravitate toward the Taliban, if only to stop the violence.

So what is to be done?

Pakzad said more foreign aid should go directly to Afghan nongovernmental organizations for small projects that suit local needs. Too often, U.S. and other foreign aid goes to ill-designed projects run by big contractors, or through Afghan officials who take a hefty cut. VWO’s shelter receives only $1 a day for each woman.

Hearing Pakzad’s lament reminds me of how the huge, failed U.S. aid projects in Iraq contrasted with small, direct projects funded by U.S. military commanders. Have we learned any lessons?

Which brings me to the work of Aldo Magazzeni, a partner in a company making industrial fasteners in Lumberton, N.J., who uses his own savings, and money from individual donors, to build water systems in Afghanistan.

Magazzeni (about whom a thick book could be written) was drawn to this work after a mountain-climbing trip to India and Bhutan in 2003.

In 2004, he traveled alone to the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan. Without benefit of an engineering degree, he spent months helping villagers design pumping systems that would save them from hiking miles for fresh water. Clean-shaven at the outset, he now sports an Afghan-style beard.

Magazzeni met Pakzad in 2004 in Kabul and now builds water systems in the Herat areas where she is helping women. For $20,000, with local village volunteers, he put together one system in 12 days that serves 35,000 people.

Magazzeni receives no U.S. funds, but is trying to link his water projects with Philly-area communities and schools that will assist them. (For more about his projects go to my blog, go.philly.com/trudyrubinblog or to his Web site, travelingmercies. org.)

Pakzad and Magazzeni are helping Afghans help themselves, an approach that is crucial to aiding women, and halting the return of Taliban terror. If the Obama team wants to help the Afghan people, that’s a model it needs to adopt.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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