MainStreetNews.Com, January 18, 2007

Helping hands to Afghanistan

MCHS grad aids women, children in war-torn land


Madison County native Doris Aldrich will cover her head again next month and go to Afghanistan. She'll step off the plane in Kabul and ride past the starving and begging children with hands blackened by the cold. She'll feel that hurt inside that comes with witnessing suffering on a grand scale.

"That's the hardest part, driving from the airport and seeing those children on the streets literally begging for their family's survival," said Aldrich.

There is so much heartache in Afghanistan. Aldrich has seen first-hand proof. But the Madison County High School graduate is doing what she can now to bring some promise to that war-torn land.

Her organization, Women to the World, operates the only western faith-based organization for education of women, ages 16 to 35, in Afghanistan.


Women are expected to be modest, unassuming, covered. Women in Afghanistan must cover their head in public. Aldrich said that many women in the country's capital, Kabul, don't wear the burqa, an all-enveloping outer garment. But the burqa is still required by many warlords in rural areas of the country. Women wear blue in the summer, white in the winter. The burqa covers the wearer's entire face, except for a small region about the eyes.

RAWA photo: Kabul in gap of poverty and destitution

"Afghanistan has received 12 billion $ in aid but there aren't any signs of serious reconstruction. Our people have not benefited from the billions of reconstruction dollars due to theft by the warlords or misuse by NGOs. Even a fraction of this aid has not been used for the benefit and welfare of our people. Government corruption and fraud directs billions of dollars into the pockets of high-ranking officials. It is such a big shame that the government still cannot provide electricity, food and water for its people."

Zoya's Speech ( ), Oct.7, 2006


The circumstances for many Afghan women are a "shock to the system," Aldrich says.

Despite the overthrow of the Taliban, many Afghan women still live in horrible conditions and have little hope.

The former Comer resident, who now lives in Athens, will soon make her fourth trip to Afghanistan. She said she has been particularly troubled by the plight of many Afghan refugees — mostly women and orphans — who returned from exile in Pakistan after the overthrow of the Taliban. Many were promised land by the Afghan government.

"But that's not happening because the warlords are holding onto it because of the poppy crop," said Aldrich.

An old high-rise in Kabul that served as a former police headquarters was turned into a refugee camp. The glass was blown out of the windows. There was no heat. The winter temperatures dipped below zero degrees.

Women to the World saw the horror of the situation and took action. Although the group is a development organization — one focused on helping women acquire skills to improve their lives — the organization assumed a relief role at the refugee camp. Aldrich and others in the organization put plastic over the windows and helped the displaced Afghanis make it through winter.

"Some expected 30 percent of the children to die," she said. "But we didn't lose one to exposure."

Aldrich said that now many of the refugees have been moved to a field about an hour and a half outside of Kabul.


Desperate times are certainly nothing new for Afghanistan.

With so much war and turmoil, demographic statistics over the past two decades in Afghanistan aren't particularly solid, but the rough numbers paint a bleak picture.

"Of the estimated 16 million Afghans at the end of the ‘70s, over two million have been killed in the war of resistance against Soviet occupiers and later on in the civil war unleashed by fundamentalist groupings enjoying the support of foreign powers," reported RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. "Another one and half million have been maimed by the war fallout, while nearly five million have been forced into refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. The majority of the population left inside the country has been internally displaced as a result of the unending war of the past two decades and in particular of the fundamentalist in-fighting from 1992-96."


Of course, the rise of the Taliban led to some of the most brutal times for the nation and for women in particular. The Taliban instituted a form of Shari'ah (Islamic law), which included banning all forms of television, imagery, music and sports. Men had to keep their beards a certain length. Women who appeared in public without a burqa were subject to a beating. Raped women faced the prospect of being considered an adulterer. A religious police force issued severe penalties for failing to observe their form of Islamic law. Punishments included amputation of one or both hands for theft and stoning for adultery.

The Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 when U.S. forces expelled them from the country after Taliban leaders refused to turn over Osama bin Laden. The Taliban has waged a guerilla war against the U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan ever since.

"When you get into Kabul, you see that everything is still blown up," said Aldrich. "You have reconstruction, but you have a city that was leveled."


The headlines from Afghanistan have often run buried deep in daily news sections of western papers in recent years: "100 suicide attempts among women in 8 months in Kandahar," "Afghan schools torched in war against education," or "Starving Afghans sell girls of eight as brides."

In such a violent climate, education has suffered.

According to RAWA, even during the best of times in Afghanistan, the overall literacy rate was less than 20 percent amongst males and less than five percent amongst females.

"Against such a backdrop, the country slid into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists in 1992 which was regarded as a tragedy for women's rights," according to a report from RAWA. "Islamic fundamentalism of any kind in essence looks upon women as sub-humans, fit only for household slavery and as a means of procreation."

Under the Taliban, women were totally deprived of the right to an education. And there are still those who want to block that right, even violently, if necessary.

Aldrich said girls' schools have been the targets of bombings. As a security measure, the Women to the World center in Kabul recently took down its sign. But Aldrich says the danger hasn't hindered the resolve of the Afghan students.

"The Afghan people don't have a Taliban attitude," said Aldrich, noting that so many are simply interested in bettering their lives and the lives of their children. "These girls are determined to go to class. It (the threat of harm) has not affected enrollment one bit. In fact, quite the opposite has happened."

Aldrich says that she has not personally faced any resistance in Afghanistan, but noted that she must travel with military escort whenever she visits a school in a rural area.

"The fear of attacks by the Taliban is much stronger in rural areas," she said.


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