In 1997, Calgarians, Janice Eisenhauer and Carolyn Reicher met while completing a senior Development Studies course at the University of Calgary. Shocked by the human rights violations Afghan women were facing under the Taliban regime, they began to explore how they as Canadian women could help Afghan women in a tangible and effective way. From there unfolds many remarkable stories of how women from all across the country joined together in solidarity as members of this uniquely Canadian network: Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan).
Today there are groups of volunteers working through chapters in Canada with hundreds of members and supporters, and an Afghan-run office in Kabul with staff and volunteers working together to advance human rights for Afghan women.
In 1998, to learn more about the issues for Afghan women, Carolyn and Janice traveled to Toronto to meet author, Deborah Ellis. Deb was raising awareness about the plight of Afghan women in 1996 when the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul, Afghanistan and began forming a group called Women for Women in Afghanistan. Her motivation came in response to her passion for equality for women and peacebuilding. When brainstorming together about how to make this a national network, Deb stated "I am not a fundraising and I can't organize, but I CAN write!" In 1998 she hopped on a plane to meet Afghan women in refugee camps in Pakistan and Russia. Her commitment inspired others when she said, "I have never been to a developing country before but I have to hear the stories directly from Afghan women in order to share them with Canadians. Carolyn and Janice went on to develop ways to expand the reach of the group into a national organization: Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Deb continued to research and write stories about women and girls in Afghanistan. She returned from her travels with remarkable stories from Afghan women and girls and helped our network form one of our most important grounding principles: listen to the voices of Afghan women. We realized very early on that Afghan women are the best possible sources of knowledge, experience and expertise on the issues that affect them and it is their stories and voices that must guide our actions. As millions of readers around the world know, Deborah Ellis went on to write the award-winning young-adult novels of The Breadwinner Trilogy and My Name is Parvana. These beautifully written novels tell the story of eleven-year-old Parvana and her close friend Shauzia who lived in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Masquerading as a boy, Parvana works in the streets of Kabul so that her family can eat. Shauzia shares many of her passions and together they dream of living in a peaceful Afghanistan. These inspiring novels depict the strength, courage and hope of children who struggle to survive under the horrific conditions of war, poverty and oppression. Deb generously donated all royalties to CW4WAfghan, which has resulted in over $1.3 million (!) in grants for education initiatives for Afghan women and girls.
In late February 1999, Victoria women including Helen Durie, Judy Lightwater were on a similar path to find ways to support Afghan women. Helen called Janice and Carolyn, introduced herself and immediately stated: "we want to start a chapter of CW4WAfghan in BC." Like all of our chapters in Canada, Victoria members host annual fundraising events, share information in their regions, give presentations at schools and community groups, and overall they strive to help keep Afghan women on the radar of the Canadian public.
During this same period in Oakville, Linda Middaugh and Bev Lefrancois gathered together with many volunteers as part of their affiliated group called: Canadians in Support of Afghan Women. All of their members are strong, knowledgeable partners within our network.
Also in Oakville is journalist, Sally Armstrong who was the first international journalist to raise awareness in Canada concerning the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and this work has remained her passion and dedication as an award winning human rights activist, author and documentary filmmaker. Her two books, Veiled Threat and Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots explore the many challenges Afghan women face as they strive to secure their rights. Sally has accepted hundreds of requests over the years to speak at events and help raise awareness about how Canadians can be effectively involved in Afghanistan. Sally's words have a life-long impact on many Canadians, and she continues to support CW4WAfghan in many ways, including as honourary chair of our ongoing LANTERN FUND: Teacher Training for Afghanistan program.
In 1999, Lauryn Oates emailed the Calgary office: "I became involved several years ago in human rights work because of my concerns for women in Afghanistan. It has remained my most pressing concern in the world of human rights." She was 16 years old! Currently, Dr. Lauryn Oates is our Programs Director responsible for the overall planning, management, monitoring and evaluation of the programs in Afghanistan. She oversees our ongoing education projects including two small community schools and school equipment, teacher training, educational resources, literacy classes, professional development workshops, an orphanage and community libraries. Lauryn Oates holds a BA Honours in International Development Studies from McGill University, an MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding from Royal Roads University, and a PhD in Language and Literacy Education from the University of British Columbia. As an award winning human rights activist, Lauryn’s focus is on international development, women’s rights and education in conflict zones.
From these early beginnings CW4WAfghan members have remained focused on their goals of advancing rights and opportunities for Afghan women at a grassroots level, relying on a growing network of dedicated volunteers across Canada. Donations from individual Canadians are directed to programmes run by or for Afghan women. Hundreds of projects, representing millions of dollars raised mainly from individual donors, have been directed to women's programmes in Afghanistan in health care, education, skills training and human rights awareness. The shared efforts of our network produce tangible results because we connect with Canadians at the grassroots level.
It was by asking “But What Can I Do?” and taking action those many years ago, by reaching out to Afghan women, listening to their stories, learning about their lives, their dreams and their fears, that many of us as Canadians realized our passions: to fight for the same basic human rights for Afghan women as we would expect for our own mothers, daughters, sisters and friends.
Together we can ensure basic human rights are strengthened, accessible and more than words on a page, or covenants and resolutions…but rights enjoyed by all. This is our ultimate vision and one that we can all contribute toward in our own unique, diverse and passionate ways.
It is a joy to be part of this energy, this movement of Canadians and Afghans as part of an active global civil society that binds us all…thinking not about charity, but to our actions in solidarity with the women of Afghanistan.