Just five years ago, Sara would never have imagined she would pursue a graduate degree or even complete her high school education. She came to the United States with her family as refugees, fleeing from the seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan. She is one of the first participants in Women for Afghan Women’s Girls Leadership Program in New York. Through the program, she was able to advocate for herself and pursue a college education—the first in her family.
Currently, she is pursuing a graduate degree in social work, illustrating a tremendous cultural shift that may have been impossible a few years ago. At an event earlier this year, Sara spoke about her experience and moved us all:
“Five years ago I thought I would be forced to leave school and get married. Women for Afghan Women inspired and taught me to become a leader. The life I have today is because of this organization.”
This year, Women for Afghan Women turns 15 years old. Founded by a small group of women activists six months before 9/11, Women for Afghan Women was originally established to advocate for Afghan women then living under brutal Taliban rule. The co-founders sought to build a movement for Afghan women that was inclusive of their collective experiences. Through their outreach, these women discovered a large Afghan community in New York City and quickly learned that women and girls in the community were facing parallel cultural constraints and enduring similar abuses as their sisters in Afghanistan.
Forced and underage marriage, domestic violence, isolation, and gender discrimination were too often staples in the households of Afghan families in New York City, yet nothing was being done at a systematic level to address these issues. The Afghan population in New York remains one of the most isolated and underserved communities in the city. They often arrive as refugees or asylum seekers fleeing decades of conflict in Afghanistan. With limited access to education in their homeland, most have few opportunities for advancement when they arrive, forcing them to live in poverty and isolation. Their lack of integration into the wider community often results in the preservation of harmful patriarchal practices that disproportionally impact young women and girls.
In response to these distressing conditions in the Afghan community and under the leadership of local Afghan women, Women for Afghan Women launched its Community Outreach Program at the heart of the Afghan community in New York in 2003. Through its work, Women for Afghan Women began to understand that the issues that Afghan women and girls were facing were not isolated, but were tied to and compounded by the other issues plaguing the community including rampant poverty, lack of education, language barriers, discrimination, and lack of opportunities for assimilation. These issues were carrying over into the lives of younger generations and disproportionately impacting girls resulting in child marriage and lack of educational and career opportunities.
When Women for Afghan Women launched its Girls Leadership Program in 2005, our staff was aware that the issue of child marriage was a silent epidemic inflicting the lives of so many young Afghan women and girls. Each staff person had been personally affected by it through their network of family and friends. The Girls Leadership Program was designed to offer girls tools for empowerment and change. They participate in leadership opportunities and engage in a critical dialogue on culture, religion, and girls’ rights.
Since 2005, Women for Afghan Women has served over 100 girls through its Girls Leadership Program, none of whom have been forced to marry despite being at risk. Of the Girls Leadership Program participants that are old enough to pursue college, 100 percent are enrolled in higher education institutions and are pursuing their bachelor’s or master’s degrees.
Every year, more girls are enrolling in the Girls Leadership Program. The program continues to grow and evolve to further develop the critical thinking and life skills of Afghan and Muslim girls in New York City, enabling them to use their capacities and talents to reshape their lives, and create the long-term, intergenerational social change that will combat the structural inequities that they face as young women.
Over 15 years, Women for Afghan Women has grown into a women-led institution with over 700 staff members (a third of which are men) and is the largest sheltering organization in Afghanistan. Beyond its sheltering mandate, Women for Afghan Women has dedicated its existence to securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls on all fronts, in both Afghanistan and New York, through a bustling Community Center in Queens, New York, 31 facilities across 13 provinces in Afghanistan, and an advocacy office in Washington, D.C. To learn more about the organization and its mission, visit: http://www.womenforafghanwomen.org/