Last week I met Razia Jan, one of the finalists for CNN’s Hero of the Year award. Razia is the founder of a small nonprofit organization called Razia’s Ray of Hope that is doing some of the bravest work I know of today.
I first heard about Razia during a conversation with my aunt about the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, which focuses on Mortenson’s mission to build schools in rural regions of Pakistan. (Though Mortenson’s book has generated some controversy, I still found the ideas behind the story inspiring.)
My aunt told me about her friend Patti Quigley, who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. Rather than shunning the region of the world from which the attackers came, Patti focused her energy on understanding it. That led Patti to meet Razia and become involved with, and eventually Executive Director of, Razia’s Ray of Hope.
On Friday, I heard Razia tell her story at an event here in Boston. A native Afghan, she lived in the US for over 38 years. After the 9/11 attacks she was compelled to return to Afghanistan to fight terrorism from the ground up. She knew, through a deep understanding of the culture, that educating girls was a key part of the solution.
Meena Amirir says all human beings have the right to go to school. Photo by Louise Hancock/Oxfam
I can only begin to imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t know how to read, if books and a daily newspaper weren’t part of my diet, if I couldn’t decipher the train schedule or track the supermarket ads, if highway signs were incomprehensible and recipes were just a jumble of symbols. I’d feel trapped. And helpless.
What must the women in Afghanistan feel?
Just 12 percent of them over the age of 15 are literate. That means that countless women in one of the poorest nations in the world must depend on others to navigate much of their lives, a dependence that can’t help but weigh heavily on a country desperate for development. Read the rest of this entry »
With no money for modern machinery--or access to electricity--many Afghans plow their fields using oxen. Photo by Jason P. Howe/Oxfam
My colleague, Ashley Jackson, is leaving her post in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she has been based for the past two years—most recently as head of policy and advocacy for Oxfam. In the course of that time, she said one of the biggest changes she has seen in the country is the deterioration of security. Travel was quite easy in the beginning, but now there are areas in which Oxfam—and other aid groups—can no longer work.
That’s deeply troubling, especially considering the scale of need in Afghanistan, which UN figures show is the second poorest country in the world: Less than half the population has access to electricity and millions of people don’t have access to basics like health care, education, clean water, and sanitation. In the south, 53 percent of the health clinics are closed, said Ashley, and it’s getting worse as the insecurity spreads.
It’s easy to get discouraged by those statistics, and that’s why Ashley’s most enduring memory from her time in the country stands out—a beacon of possibility, a reason for hope. In her words, here’s that memory:
My first trip outside of Kabul was to a remote area in the north of the country, where I visited a women’s literacy class. I remember talking to one woman, who must have been in her 50s, about what it was like to learn how to read so late in life. She said it was like being blind and then learning how to see. She was able to go to the market and buy things, as she could finally read the money and knew she wouldn’t be cheated. She said that the greatest joy she had as a grandmother was helping her grandchildren learn how to read as that was something that no one will be able to take away from them, no matter what happens in the future.
Raima's family has been displaced many times during the years of conflict in Afghanistan. Soon after they returned to Kabul in 2003, her husband was killed in a suicide attack. Photo by Ashley Jackson/Oxfam
In his address to the nation on Afghanistan last night, President Obama said the US will support ministries, governors, and local leaders that deliver for the Afghan people and combat corruption. For many Afghan civilians, the cost of war has meant ever deeper poverty with half of Afghans impoverished.
“We just finished a survey that went all around Afghanistan, including the insecure parts, 700 people in places like Kandahar and Helmand. They said their top issue in terms of what’s driving the insurgency is poverty followed by the weakness of the Karzai government, the corruption in Kabul,” said Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America’s vice president for policy and advocacy, in an interview Tuesday with CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour.
“If we do development well and we do it for its own sake, we may well end up with a safer Afghanistan, which is for everyone’s benefit,” O’Brien added.
I just wanted to share this striking photo from a slideshow related to The Cost of War, a new Oxfam report documenting the human cost of chronic conflict and disorder in Afghanistan. Taken by Travis Beard, it shows women shopping for new burqas in a bazaar in Herat.
At first glance, I thought it was a beautiful image, the stiff folds of fabric falling like drapes in a Renaissance painting. Then I read a little more about women’s experiences in Afghanistan under extremist rule, and the more haunting elements—the cold blue light, the claustrophobic space, the bent and faceless figures—came to the forefront.
When the Taliban came to power, most Afghan women were banned from work and not allowed to leave home without a male escort and a full-length burqa. These draconian laws left many women considering suicide.
“During the Taliban period, our life was bad, because we didn’t have the freedom to go outside,” said one Kandahar woman. According to the report, 42 percent of women surveyed in Kabul now meet the conditions for post-traumatic stress disorder.
More than 700 Afghan people spoke to Oxfam and partners about their experiences for the report. Check out more of their photos and stories in our new slideshow, Lives Interrupted.
Oxfam launched this message for ministers meeting in The Hague. Photo by Ton Vrijenhoek
When dozens of ministers from countries around the world met in The Hague yesterday to talk about the future of Afghanistan, the fate of 8.5 million people hung in the air. That’s the number of Afghans who face chronic uncertainty about whether they will have enough to eat. Already the health of more than a million young children and 500,000 women is at risk because of malnutrition.
Those numbers hit hard when you weigh them against the findings in a new field report from Afghanistan produced by Oxfam America. The report says that the US spends 20 times more in military activities and operations in the country than it does on development. And the money that does go to development isn’t always well coordinated: The report cited one case of two separate contractors, both funded by USAID who, by chance, discovered they were doing almost the same project in the same place. Read the rest of this entry »
Equipped with cameras and a quick lesson on how to use them, 20 Afghan women and their children fanned out to record their lives last year in a project sponsored by Oxfam and its partner, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief. The images they captured—and the words they used to describe them—are filling my mind now as I read about a high-level meeting on the future of Afghanistan that’s set to take place tomorrow in The Hague. Read the rest of this entry »
At the goat market in Moyale, Ethiopia, this goat herder gets ready to part with a prized posession. Photo by Sarah Livingston
“No more caffeine!” said the email from my husband at mid-morning. I’d been up since 5 a.m., gulping coffee and fretting. It’s always this way before I take a trip. Would my visa come on time? Would I remember to take the malaria medicine? Where was my yellow card? Was the Ciprofloxacin—the stomach-bug-cure-all—still good? Would I need that water bottle with the filter and iodine tablets? Read the rest of this entry »
As 2008 winds down, we’re highlighting photos we think best capture Oxfam’s work this year. Here is one of my favorites–with an explanation why. More to come from others.
Loko Dadacha, photographed by Sarah Livingston
In this supposed season of joy, trouble fills our world: a cholera outbreak and widespread hunger in Zimbabwe, a food crisis in Afghanistan that’s threatening five million people, bursts of violence in the eastern provinces of Democratic Republic of Congo that have forced a quarter of a million people from their homes, a conflict in Darfur that has dragged on for nearly six years and wrecked the lives of millions of Sudanese—the list goes on. And that’s the killer. Where is the hope in this bottomless pit of suffering?
Sub-Commissioner Blanca Lidia Figueroa of the National Police, El Salvador. Photo by Claudia Barrientos/Oxfam America
Earlier this week I read an excellent article in the NY Times by Carlotta Gall about Bamian, Afghanistan. Gall writes that women are driving cars, working as police officers, and there is even a woman governor there. As violence has diminished in this corner of the country, peace it seems, opens doors for women to stage “a quiet revolution.” But it is still not easy for women to take on non-traditional roles outside the home. One police lieutenant, after five years on the force, says “I had some problems at the beginning.” I’ll bet she did, and probably continues to. But at least the Taliban are not active in Bamian: Last month in Kandahar they murdered Malalai Kakar, a well-known female police captain.
Oxfam America is a member of Oxfam, an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.
Oxfam America is a 501(c)(3) organization. Gifts are tax-deductible to the full extent allowable under the law.