What is Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics?
We are a start-up non-profit organization working with young women in Afghanistan. Last year we began the capstone activity of our pilot program: an all-female ascent of Afghanistan’s highest mountain. We have been training a group of 12 Afghan women in physical fitness and mountaineering skills since November 2014. They are also working with mentors and instructors on team-building, storytelling (focusing on their personal narratives) and interpersonal conflict resolution. They are just weeks away from their expedition. Once they return, they will begin service projects in their communities as a way to give back. Our focus is to create role models through sport, and to invest in our athletes in order to help them spark positive change in their communities and their country.
What do you hope to achieve?
Ascend was formed with the belief that, working together, young people can play a central role in the nation’s transition from war to peace. Our approach is to invest in the human potential of individuals, and give them a unique opportunity to inspire others to work together for a better future. At the end of this endeavor, these young women will climb one of the highest peaks in the Hindu Kush, sending a message of achievement and peace to their country and beyond.
I get the impression that Ascend isn’t just about mountain climbing?
That is correct. We work with young women and men in countries in conflict, because we believe that empowering young people who are invested in making their countries a better place can break the cycle of conflict and make lasting change. We help the team members develop self-confidence and skills that will enable them to lead their communities toward a more secure, just and productive future. Afghanistan is a country fractured by three decades of war and conflict. To put this country back together, change has to include all elements of society, particularly women.
How long will the climb take?
The expedition will take approximately four weeks, depending on conditions on the mountain. The team will progress to several base camps, the first at 14,000 ft. There will be several additional camps at varying altitudes. From the final base camp, small teams will make attempts at summiting.
Who are these young women?
The team consists of twelve female athletes, between the ages of 16-22. They come from a variety of backgrounds, provinces and ethnicities. Several of the girls are college students, while most have had more limited educational opportunities. For security purposes, we cannot share their names at this time.
How were the girls chosen?
There were three criteria for the initial selection for these athletes. First, they had to have the full support of their families. Second, they had to be athletic and physically fit, or show a strong commitment to train to a high level of fitness. Third and most important, they had to demonstrate a spirit of service to their communities and their country.
Are they all from the same village/school?
The athletes come from different provinces across Afghanistan, although there is a team of sisters from a particularly beautiful and mountainous province called Nuristan, very near to the Wakhan Corridor.
Do the girls’ families support them?
Yes! Greatly. Family support is one of the requirements for the program.
Why is family support so important?
In this society, women can do very little without support from their families. We have invested a lot of time getting to know these families. Their support for their daughters is strong. Despite common characterizations of Afghanistan, there are in fact many progressive and educated men and women who want opportunity and a better life for their daughters as well as their sons. However, most young women are still not allowed outside of the home, have little opportunity to work and study and are too frequently married at a very young age and expected to start raising children. The families of our climbers want a different life than that for their daughters.
What exactly is involved with the training program?
The girls have been training for over six months in physical conditioning, technical climbing and mountaineering skills, as well as conflict resolution, team-building and leadership seminars. The physical conditioning is under the guidance of a coach at the national Olympic center. Technical climbing and mountaineering training has occurred through classroom sessions, and a bi-monthly trip to nearby peaks. During these climbs, instructors work on specific skills and confidence building, such as rappelling. The conflict resolution and leadership training is designed to promote coping skills and build resilience. A typical week involves several days of conditioning training, a technical training climb, and a day of leadership training in an off-site location facilitated by a conflict resolution professional.
Tell me more about the conflict resolution and leadership training?
This is the heart of the training program. It is designed to build resiliency and coping tools, not for the climb itself, but for what life brings afterward in this challenging and fractured society. All of these young athletes have known war their entire lives. Their normal existence has been one of conflict and violence. The training sessions have helped the women tell their own stories in the context of these wars. It has helped them face, in a supportive group setting, the trauma and hardships of their lives alongside others. The climb will require teamwork that is uncommon in this land, where hard lives drive wedges between different elements of society. Afghanistan is a nation where leadership and cohesion is needed to bring people back together after the fighting is done.
What are the risks to the athletes?
This is not a risk-free endeavor. The risks are two-fold. Mountain climbing of this caliber is inherently dangerous. This is the reason for the extensive technical training, use of world-class climbing guides, and conditioning training the athletes have been undergoing. There are also the risks that accompany an endeavor in a country that has been at war for so long. In Afghanistan, violence is common. There are strong elements of society that oppose female participation in sports. Ascend’s founder has worked in remote areas of Afghanistan since 2005, and our on-the-ground staff has extensive networks in the areas we work. We draw upon these experiences and contacts to ensure that day-to-day risks are mitigated with proper security measures.
Does Ascend plan to stay in Afghanistan or start another project in a different country?
Yes to both. We are already in the preliminary planning phases for a second climb in Afghanistan next summer. Our management structure is designed to build the training and staff infrastructure to ensure sustainability in Afghanistan. We also intend to move beyond Afghanistan to other countries where sports can also be used as a vehicle to help women find their voices in fractured societies.
Once a group of girls climb the mountain, do they go on to be counselors or guides for the next group?
Some of the girls from our first climb will continue on as the core group of mountaineers, teaching new recruits, and honing their skills and training. We also fully expect that a number of the girls will return to their regular lives in their communities, and will bring their newfound confidence and sense of accomplishment to their service projects. These girls will return to their schools, homes and villages having accomplished something extraordinary.
What are some of the challenges women in Afghanistan face, and how will this climb address these challenges?
Millions of Afghan women have seen their lives improve in the past decade, but the majority still face staggering challenges. Illiteracy rates are around 80%, and even higher in rural areas. Violence against women continues at alarming rates. Young women growing up in constant conflict have few role models since women’s role in society is so severely restricted. Our goal is to inspire Afghan women to break barriers and achieve their dreams, demonstrating through action what women are capable of when they work together for something positive. Mountain climbing is a way for women to discover their inherent strength and ability, and develop a self-confidence that extends to all areas of their lives.
Don’t you have to worry about the fighting in Afghanistan?
Yes. Fighting is active in a number of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. We take security measures during movements to and from our training facilities, to and from our practice climb sites, and in our preparations for the first expedition. We will not climb or train anywhere where this is active fighting or in areas with a history of recent fighting. We also work closely with local government officials and their security and police forces to ensure they are aware of our movements and where we are climbing. We have had a great response from the local officials in the areas we operate. Meeting with these officials and explaining the program and purpose has met with consistent support. As mentioned, this is not a risk-free endeavor. But we mitigate dangers with proven security techniques and a careful strategy of risk management.
Why Afghanistan, instead of someplace safer?
Because the need is so great. Afghanistan is at a crossroads. Conflict has reigned for decades, but progress toward peace and stability has great momentum. Millions of girls are back in school now, after years of Taliban rule and conflict prohibited this. These girls and young women, educated and increasingly aware of their power, face a challenging future. They hold potential to drive tremendous social change. Having worked on gender programming and development in Afghanistan for many years, we have witnessed the power of these women, and we believe in their capacity to change the narrative of conflict in this country to one of hope.
After the climb, is there a plan to tell this story to other girls in Afghanistan?
Yes. For security purposes, Ascend’s work in Afghanistan is purposely kept low-key at the moment. However, each of the girls and their families understand and expect that following the climb there will be national media attention inside of Afghanistan. We have arrangements and existing relationships with national media organizations inside of Afghanistan for post-climb coverage. This will include radio, television and social media, with an expected audience of fifteen million Afghan women and girls.
How much of an impact will this have?
It is hard to know exactly, and even harder to measure. But we firmly believe in the power of extraordinary accomplishment to make change. There are few positive role models for women in Afghanistan. Millions of girls in Afghanistan will hear about the extraordinary accomplishments of the Ascend climbers. The national impact will be powerful in Afghanistan, where a sporting culture of athletic achievement is widely accepted. These girls will tell a story of breaking down barriers, placing trust in others, and working for a common goal across ethnic and gender divides. Women in Afghanistan face many hurdles. Persistence through hardship and challenge, as well as strength in the face of adversity, are characteristics that will help women in Afghanistan find their voices. We are firm in our belief that this will be a positive story of accomplishment to spark hope in other young women. No single program or story will make change overnight, but it has to start somewhere. And change requires champions.
Why are you focused on women?
Breaking down barriers to women’s empowerment is directly tied to economic and social progress. Studies show that an increased role for women in developing countries can increase economic output by up to 25% by placing household spending in the hands of women, whose choices better benefit children. Empowering women results in policies and institutions that better serve society.
How can I help?
There are a number of ways you can help the team.
We rely exclusively on donors to fund the ongoing training and operational costs for the expedition. We are a U.S based 501(c)3 charitable organization, so your donation is tax deductible.
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How are you funded?
Because Ascend’s programming is unusual and inherently risky, our focus has been on proving the concept before seeking donor funding. At this stage we are seeing significant positive transformation in the team members, and we feel confident that our approach is working. We’ve self-funded to this point but are now turning our attention to fundraising. We’re seeking donor relationships with those who see the value in sport-as-development and who believe that women’s empowerment is a vital component to economic development and social change – especially in conflict regions.
What are your current program needs?
We are currently fundraising to cover $89,000 in costs to complete this initial program. This includes the cost of expert trainers, mountain guides, and coaches for the team, transportation and food, and all necessary gear for this groundbreaking expedition. We are also working to establish long-term relationships with individuals, foundations and organizations devoted to women’s empowerment.
How can we follow progress of the climb?
- Get project & expedition updates
- Get reports & photographs from the field
- Get personal reports from our team leaders