Giving Afghan women the chance to grow
01 September 2004
Nearly three years after the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, women and children remain among the greatest casualties. They are casualties in health care, education and economic empowerment.
But former metro Atlantan Hawa Meskinyar hopes to change that through the work of JAHAN (Join and Help Afghanistan Now), a nonprofit humanitarian organization she formed in 2001.
The Washington-based organization, run by volunteers in the United States and Kabul, helps needy women and children become self-sufficient. Its name means world or universe in Dari, one of the many languages spoken in Afghanistan. And it's the world's attention that Meskinyar hopes to focus on a country struggling to emerge from decades of war and a repressive government.
"The hardest thing for me there is seeing the people and the way they are living and hearing their stories," said Meskinyar, a graduate of Redan High School in Stone Mountain and Georgia Tech. "You see them so aggressive. The only thing they think about is survival. 'What can we do to save some money so we can feed our children the next day?"
According to Human Rights Watch, in southeast Afghanistan many women and girls say life overall is better now than it was under the Taliban. But many - particularly in rural areas - say they are often harassed, sometimes violently, when they try to go to school, work or not wear the burqa.
One group, Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, recently closed its medical programs after 24 years in the country. "The hospitals that are there are in terrible condition," Meskinyar said. "Women are dying left and right from childbirth. It's just appalling that in today's world, people can be dying from such simple things."
Meskinyar, 33, has lived in many countries around the world. The granddaughter of a retired Afghan diplomat, she and her family lived in Afghanistan for eight years but fled to neighboring Pakistan - and eventually the United States - after the Soviet invasion.
JAHAN's initial goal was a program that would pair a sponsor with an Afghan child. So far, more than 80 sponsors have signed on. Meskinyar distributes the funds - $30 to $50 a month. She asks only that the family receiving the money make every effort to send the child to school. "Education is the key," she said. She scours Kabul's ethnically diverse neighborhoods, its tent cities and low-income housing, to make sure the money reaches as many children as possible.
Soon, she plans to start a sewing and literacy center to help Afghan women become self-sufficient. She worries that the country will become too dependent on handouts. She hopes to market the products in the United States and other countries through retail outlets or the Internet. The women will earn a salary and their children will also be placed in the sponsorship program. She has placed some products locally in Donna Van Gogh's Artist Market in Candler Park.
"I think it is very important to support other artists and particularly disenfranchised women artists," said Teri Stewart, co-owner. "There's a certain obligation we have as Americans to try to do what we can for the people of Afghanistan without bullets."
"Unemployment is a big, big problem there for the women and the men," Meskinyar said. "They want to work, but there are no jobs. And the women who do handicrafts will sell them to the local shopkeeper, and he gives them very little. Then he turns around and sells it to the Americans or whoever for, like, hundreds of dollars." Economic development projects such as the sewing center, she said, will provide "hope and energy."
But Meskinyar, whose parents still live in Stone Mountain, worries about what will happen to the people she's trying to help if the world's attention focuses elsewhere, such as on the conflict in Iraq. Many Afghans feel they were ignored before, and that led to their country being a haven for terrorists. "If they're abandoned again, it will probably be worse."