During the Taliban regime, men and women were severely punished for engaging in sporting activities in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, thousands of Afghans have revived the nation’s passion for going outside, having fun and keeping fit. Today outdoor activities are gaining popularity around Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul, but women are often discouraged from participating – or even appearing outdoors – due to perceptions of femininity based on traditional cultural and social beliefs.
In 2013, ASCEND started in Afghanistan with the goal of empowering Afghan girls and young women through sports and leadership. Its first program was mountain climbing, an activity that fascinates both men and women in the community. It was not only a sport, but something that helped girls develop team-building skills, tolerance, and values. It enabled them to raise their voices and understand their potential as members of their society while giving them a safe social circle in which to share their hopes, dreams and friendship.
The ASCEND team achieved this in spite of daunting social and cultural constraints that sometimes made the task seem impossible. With steadfast support of their management and families, the team succeeded in breaking these barriers and making history in Afghanistan, climbing – and even naming – mountains that no man or woman has conquered.
As ASCEND’s operational director and advocate for youth, I was responsible for making the dream a reality. Guides needed to be hired, transportation needed to be secured and officials on the national, provincial and district level needed to be convinced to permit the group’s activities. That often entailed solving serious problems and mitigating the risks, both financial and physical, that confronted our program. Many times, I received threats from those who sought to thwart our program, including the threat of death should anything happen to team members. But these warnings did not deter me or the team, as we believed our program could succeed our team members could thrive as independent and productive members of a better Afghan society.
Another thing that motivated me and my colleagues to keep going were the more positive reactions to the team members’ efforts. When the team conquered new peaks and reached – quite literally – new heights, they would be greeted after their expeditions with joy and pride by their families and other members of their communities. These brave girls then shared their experiences and insights with others, speaking to students in school and to the entire nation through media reports.
The program has changed their lives, empowering team members and those they inspire. They can speak in public, share their experiences with others, participate in community activities, and, should they choose to do so, advocate for more opportunities for women. Seeing such encouraging results has helped me forget the previous threats and challenges. And team members’ families, too, have shown their appreciation for the way their daughters have empowered themselves and proven that their daughters can accomplish far more than they ever imagined.
I believe such programs will have lasting and positive effects in the community. We are already seeing experienced team members training others in their communities as the program continues. ASCEND is also working to establish partnerships within the society and with other organization that will continue to function even after completion of the program.
Recently, ASCEND started the second phase of its program with a larger group of team members. They have technical and academic training sessions each week. The new team is very excited about the program, because it is something very interesting and different; that is, unlike many others in traditional society, we expect them to succeed. ASCEND plans to have various other activities and exchange programs for the empowerment of girls in the future. It also believes that each of these girls will have the knowledge and motivation to advocate for their fellow women, to promote more opportunities for women while giving each team member the knowledge and skills to create a better life for herself.