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Nooristan Takes Grassroots Approach to Fight for Afghan Women

by Anna Gawel

The pullout of international combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 doesn’t bode well for Afghan women, who, despite tremendous progress since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, still live in one of the world’s worst countries to be a woman.

And it’s getting worse, according to Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which says the brutality of attacks against women hit record levels in 2013, rising by nearly 25 percent over the previous year.

Volunteers and members of the Nooristan Foundation Board of Directors dressed in traditional Indian and Afghan attire attend the 2013 Nooristan Benefit Dinner at the Indian Residence, including hostess Ambassador of India Nirupama Rao, sixth from left, Sultana Hakimi, wife of the Afghan ambassador, to her left, and Vice President of the Nooristan Foundation Mariam Atash, far right. Photos: Embassy of India / Nooristan Foundation

“The brutality of the cases is really bad. Cutting the nose, lips and ears. Committing public rape,” Samar recently told Reuters. “It’s against dignity, against humanity.”

Despite the enormous obstacles, aid groups are working to consolidate the gains women in Afghanistan have made over the last 12 years while chipping away at deeply entrenched conservative values — from the ground up.

That’s been the philosophy of the Nooristan Foundation since its founding in 1999. The D.C.-based charity supports health care, job training programs and education for Afghan women and children, working with local partners and teaching economic skills to help women become self-sufficient.

Marie Kux, right, president of the Nooristan Foundation, a D.C.-based volunteer nonprofit that supports health care, vocational training and education for Afghan women and children, joins Ambassador of India Nirupama Rao for “An Evening of Hope: A Benefit Dinner for the Women and Children of Afghanistan” held at the Indian Residence.

Among its projects: It provided winter aid to some 90 refugee families outside of Kabul; supported literacy classes for 120 women; launched a primary school for 70 girls and boys in the remote mountains of Nooristan Province; and instituted a two-year training program for 80 midwives to cut the country’s staggeringly high maternal mortality rate. It also recently stepped in to fill a funding gap at Global Rights, a group that helps marginalized Afghan women access the justice system in cases such as forced marriage, domestic violence and child custody.

From left Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, his wife Marie Royce of Alcatel-Lucent, and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann attend a benefit dinner at the Indian Residence to benefit the Nooristan Foundation, which helps women and girls in rural Afghanistan.

It’s a grassroots approach that has earned the Nooristan Foundation some high-profile supporters back in Washington, D.C., many of whom converge on the group’s annual benefit fundraiser, held in previous years at the embassies of Greece and France.

For the 2013 benefit dinner, Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao opened her residence to Nooristan supporters on Oct. 24, shortly before the veteran diplomat left her post.

“When you face terrorism, extremism, often against women, you begin to wonder how you can turn the tide,” Rao said, praising the all-volunteer nonprofit for tackling what seems like an insurmountable scourge.

Rao — who became ambassador to the U.S. in September 2011 and since leaving has taken a one-year fellowship at Brown University — said India wants to see a prosperous Afghanistan. “Its destiny in my mind is for it to be a hub in our region … a politically and economically stable democracy free of terrorism,” she said.

Supporters of the Nooristan Foundation benefit dinner were, from left, Nooristan Vice President Lindsey Holaday, Schameha Shokoor, Guli Atash, and Nadir Atash, a member of a well-known Nooristani family who resettled in the United States after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and who founded the Nooristan Foundation in 1999.

“Your goals and our goals are exactly the same. We all want the best for Afghanistan,” she told Marie Kux, president of the Nooristan Foundation since 2008.

Kux — whose husband Dennis is a former U.S. ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire and Asia scholar at the Wilson Center — said that the barrage of bleak headlines tends to overlook the “steady and real progress which is occurring in Afghanistan.”

She noted that girls make up almost 38 percent of the 8 million students in primary and secondary school today — compared to almost none in 2002. Kux also cited the case of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban who has since become a global advocate for girls’ education, to point out that “in Afghanistan, there are also many Malalas.”

In 2008, for example, she said a girls’ school near Kandahar was attacked by the Taliban, who threw acid in the schoolgirls’ faces. “You would think the opposite would happen,” Kux said, referring to enrollment. “In fact, now there are more girls in that school than ever before.”

Kux said her organization works to empower women at the grassroots level, training teachers, midwives and businesswomen. The foundation was started in 1999 by Dr. Nadir Atash, a member of a well-known Nooristani family who resettled with his family in the United States after the Soviet invasion (Nooristan, also called Nuristan or Nurestan, refers to a mountainous province in northeastern Afghanistan that borders Pakistan).

Atash advocated a ground-up approach focused on building rural roads, schools, hydroelectric power and water supplies for remote Nooristani villages.

Today, Kux said the group has expanded on that vision to offer women not only humanitarian aid, but skills — from reading and writing to sewing and poultry farming — to help them build new lives.

While they may seem basic, Kux said these skills are helping Afghan women “move on beyond their traditional, limited roles and this is a real revolution.”

Marie Royce, senior director of international public affairs at Alcatel-Lucent who was honored for her contributions to the Nooristan Foundation, said such training programs can have a tremendous impact on the ground.

Royce, wife of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, comes from California, home to a large Afghan community. She said she developed a mentoring program for Afghan women in conjunction with the State and Defense Departments and helped bring Alcatel-Lucent wireless technology to Afghan villages.

Royce said she met Kux at an embassy party, where they spent one hour talking together. “Marie told me she was a former diplomat’s spouse and had found her own way to travel to rural areas,” Royce recalled. “She saw orphans walking barefoot through the snow … and came back to D.C. and asked women in the Pentagon to help with blankets, tents etc.”

Royce said the international community has made a tangible difference in the lives of Afghanistan’s women, who, under Taliban rule, were cloistered inside their houses, stoned for adultery or other moral transgressions, sold and married off as child brides, and denied any form of education.

While many women continue to suffer abuse in a country where men (and in-laws) have unquestionable control of the households, Royce pointed out that life expectancy shot up by 20 years from 2004 to 2010 thanks largely to U.S. foreign assistance.

Today, roughly 25 percent of the Afghan Parliament is made up of women, Royce added, and there are 2,300 women-owned enterprises in the country.

These achievements shouldn’t be that surprising, Royce said, considering Afghanistan’s history. She recalled attending an event earlier that morning in which Paula Dobriansky, former undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, asked the audience what two countries had the best and worst records when it came to women’s political representation in the 1960s. The United States had the worst ranking while Afghanistan had the top spot. Today, of course, those records are reversed.

Royce said groups like the Nooristan Foundation are working to reclaim that legacy of progress — while warning that the gains made so far are fragile and can just as easily be reversed again.

“The past 12 years have brought the women of Afghanistan into the light,” she said, “and we will not allow the darkness of the Taliban years to happen again.”

Anna Gawel is the managing editor and columnist for The Washington Diplomat.




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