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Where will Afghan women be when troops leave the country?

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Afghan women enter a poling station to vote in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban.

RAHMAT GUL / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Afghan women enter a poling station to vote in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban.

What do Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton agree on? They, like many other prominent Americans, talk effusively about helping Afghan women.

The fate of Afghan women is also a subject that grabs the attention of Americans who have otherwise lost interest in that country. When Afghans voted last week, much of the U.S. media coverage focused on lines of burka-clad female voters at the polls.

So let’s assume (and it’s far from certain) that this interest in Afghan women is genuine and will outlast the U.S. troop exit at the end of 2014. How can concerned Americans help these women consolidate their gains?

For starters, they can support the growing cadre of brave Afghan women, many young, who want to empower their female compatriots at the grassroots level. One good example is 22-year-old Noorjahan Akbar, a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who has been organizing and blogging on Afghan women’s issues for several years.

Akbar defies most of the American stereotypes about Afghan females. Her family came from a rural background, where girls — and even boys — rarely got schooling, but her paternal grandmother made certain her father was educated. Both her parents became social activists and teachers; they fled to Pakistan when the Taliban took over, so their four daughters could attend school.

After the Taliban fell, her family returned home and started a learning center to teach Afghan women English and computer skills. Accompanied by her father, Noorjahan traveled to villages in three remote provinces in 2009 and 2010 to record women’s folk songs.

"The women I met inspired me and opened my eyes" to their situation, she told me.

She also worked on women’s literacy training projects and cofounded Young Women for Change, a grassroots group that protested harassment of and violence toward women. The group collected 20 used computers from local businesses and started a women’s Internet cafe; they also raised funds online from local Afghans. Noorjahan is a prolific blogger on Afghan subjects from justice for rape victims to changing gender stereotypes in Afghan texts.

Her goal, after pursuing a master’s degree in journalism in the United States, is to return home with new skills — and new contacts — to promote rights for women. Here is the part where you come in.

Noorjahan was able to study at Dickinson because of the Afghan Girls’ Financial Assistance Fund (www.agfaf.org), an organization started by a group of New Jersey educators and professionals. It links talented young Afghan women with top universities (and sometimes secondary schools for some prepping), says lawyer and cofounder Leo Motiuk. It also raises scholarship money to ensure they can complete their degrees.

The 25 women and one young man currently in the program get a host family and funds to visit their Afghan families during summer vacation. They must sign a pledge to return home after they graduate. The assistance fund is a reminder of what American civic activists can accomplish. Setting up such direct links between U.S. and Afghan activists makes the subject of Afghan women come alive.

Talk to Noorjahan, and it becomes very clear how important those links are.

"I think it is possible that women’s gains could be pushed back," she says (as they were after periods of liberalization in the 1920s and 1970s). "We all fear we might go back again."

Despite major gains in female health and primary schooling, female literacy had risen to only 13 per cent by 2011 (compared with 39 per cent for men). There is a woeful lack of female teachers and school buildings.

Most of all, Afghan women fear a Taliban comeback. Noorjahan worries that women’s rights could become a bargaining chip used by Afghan or Western leaders in talks with the Taliban, to be traded away for some Taliban concession.

Yet she is cheered by the greater political awareness and hunger for education among Afghans. She recalls talking to a mullah in the remote province Faryab who told her that a Pakistani-trained preacher had come and railed against girls’ education.

"No one listened to him," the mullah told her. His villagers wanted girls to keep studying.

Noorjahan hopes Americans won’t drop their declared support for Afghan women after 2014.

For Americans who care, there are several courses of action. At the political level, they should push their politicians to make U.S. aid contingent on the funding of women’s rights, including education (the leading Afghan presidential candidates backed women’s rights in the first round of balloting, but that doesn’t mean the winner will follow through).

Americans can also donate to established aid groups such as Care (www.care.org), Save the Children (www.savethechildren.org), and UNICEF (www.unicef.org), which do important work with Afghan women; the Central Asian Institute (www.ikat.org), which builds and supports Afghan girls’ schools; or the Women for Afghan Women (www.womenforafghanwomen.org), which provides services in eight provinces.

But, equally important, they can help create a growing cadre of female activists who will push for women’s rights and schooling — especially outside Kabul. This is where groups such as the assistance fund can make a difference.

Before she returns home, Noorjahan wants to get a master’s degree in print and electronic journalism. She has been admitted to two top schools, but is still looking for scholarship assistance (the assistance fund supports only undergraduates). Anyone with suggestions, please let me know.

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

— Philadelphia Inquirer

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