Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan

By Bibi Bahrami, member of the Rotary Club of Muncie and founder of AWAKEN

Growing up as a young girl in the peaceful village of Qala-e-Malakh in Afghanistan, I was part of a loving family with ten brothers and sisters. We were happy, but little did we know that our lives would soon face devastation as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. I was frightened and scared for my life and for the lives of my loved ones. Every time I heard shots or explosions, I trembled at the thought of losing a family member.

In the face of war, we were forced to flee our home, leaving everything behind to head towards refugee camps in Pakistan. A long journey awaited us as we traveled through mountains without much food or water, with small children and my mother who was eight months pregnant at the time. We arrived to the camps safely where I spent the next six years of my life. My life had been turned upside down. Growing up, I always had aspirations and dreams to be educated, and hoped for the opportunity to pursue them. My six years in the camp did not give me that opportunity, but I tried to learn what I could from my brothers’ books.

In 1986, I boarded a plane to meet my fiancé, who was a medical student in the United States who I had met in the refugee camp in Pakistan. My trip brought me to Muncie, Indiana, and I was blessed with the opportunity that I had always wanted. I was finally able to pursue my education, completing a GED and continuing on to receive an art degree from Ball State University. As my life has moved on from my home in Qala-e-Malakh and the refugee camps, I never forgot about the girls I left behind who have the same dreams as I did.

My husband and I continued to travel back to the refugee camps in Pakistan every year, with medicine and other humanitarian supplies. In 2002, with the support of family and friends, we established AWAKEN (Afghan Women and Kids Education & Necessities) to provide educational opportunities, vocational training, and healthcare services to the people of Afghanistan, especially the women and children.

As part of AWAKEN, we offered a vocational training program where we traveled from village to village and rented a room conveniently located near women’s homes. We conducted a six-month course teaching women basic hygiene, reading, writing, and sewing. At the end of the course, all women received a sewing machine and kit so they could become self-sufficient.

There were also no opportunities for education in my hometown of Qala-e-Malakh. In 2004, AWAKEN established a school for children grades K-12. The school now has more than 1200 students enrolled.

Most villages in Afghanistan do not have access to any sort of healthcare. In 2008, we built the Behsood Health Clinic which provides over 500 families access to basic treatments such as vaccines, birth control, etc. The clinic sees more than 180 patients daily.

Recently, AWAKEN partnered with the Rotary Club of Muncie Sunrise (United States) and the Rotary Club of Jalalabad (Afghanistan) to establish a Saheli Center. The center will open near the current AWAKEN clinic and school providing literacy, nutrition, and reproductive health classes. The center will also provide vocational education, including but not limited to computers and tailoring expanding upon AWAKEN’s efforts.

One of my biggest dreams was to open a birthing center in the village. AWAKEN created a birthing center to provide prenatal and postnatal care. With the support of partnering Rotary clubs, we will expand our efforts by conducted Family Planning Workshops taught by medical professionals from the Rotary Club of Jalalabad and the AWAKEN clinic staff. Birth attendants will also conduct small workshops on pre-natal nutrition, birthing practices and infant nutrition, including breast feeding for those receiving pre-natal care. Small packages of infant care supplies provided by the Rotary clubs will be given to women who complete all the classes.

I was once a little girl in Afghanistan with limited opportunities, and am blessed to have the life I enjoy today. Unfortunately, people living in impoverished countries do not have access to the opportunities and resources that I do now. Together we can make a difference in the lives of many women and children in Afghanistan, so that they can awaken to a brighter future with opportunities for continuing their education and becoming self-sufficient!

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Prioritizing women’s and girl’s health through Rotary and Peace Corps

By Katie Northcott, Rotary Global Grants Scholar and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

“Je ne sais pas quoi faire”. I don’t know what to do. Six words that can define any experience with an unintended pregnancy, especially for a teenager. In this case, I was standing in front of a 16-year-old Burkinabe girl who had participated in a youth sexual health education camp I had organised just a few weeks earlier. During the camp, she learned about sexual and reproductive health issues including contraception, gender-based violence, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, and the importance of planning for the future. During the session on pregnancy, the young woman realised that perhaps the symptoms she was experiencing were more than just general illness. A pregnancy test at the health clinic the following week confirmed her fears.

My Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso, where this experience took place, guided my current career path and life focus. I wanted my work to ensure that other young people would not find themselves in similar situations. Initially motivated by the concept of economic opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa as a conduit to support women’s rights, I had pursued Economics, African Studies, and French during my undergraduate studies.

A research project studying women’s experiences starting their businesses took me to Senegal where I met the president of a micro-finance office providing income-generating activity training as well as contraceptive and reproductive health services. Here, I directly connected a woman’s and girl’s well-being and participation in the public and economic sphere to the ability to make choices about her own health. From then on, I knew I wanted to focus on sexual and reproductive health rights, which led me to apply to Peace Corps and serve as a Community Health Development volunteer in Burkina Faso.

Working in a rural setting in a country with some of the world’s worst health outcomes, particularly for maternal, neonatal and child health, is challenging. As a volunteer, you often expect to make ground-breaking changes in your host community within a two-and-a-half-year time span. Realistically, projects and their outcomes only reach a small community, and their effects may not be seen until after the end of one’s service.

However, the focus on local, context-specific solutions – working from grassroots community level rather than a top-down approach – became a cornerstone of my career goals. I decided to apply for a Master’s degree in Population and Development at the London School of Economics, focusing on sexual and reproductive health in low-resource settings in Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa.

After much research, I applied for a Rotary Global Grants scholarship to help me pursue the graduate degree. I was awarded a scholarship focused in maternal and child health through District 7620 in the United States. Rotary’s alignment with Peace Corps’ own vision, to make a lasting impact on the world around us, made me feel proud to be a Global Grants scholar. Upon arriving in London, the Rotary community was warm and welcoming. While I have since left London, I still feel very much a part of the Rotary community.

Once I completed my degree, I began working for AmplifyChange, a multi-donor fund providing grants to civil society organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America who advocate for and promote better policy and action on neglected sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. As a member of the grants support team, I interact with grantees who are doing vitally important work all over the world.

Without first living in Burkina Faso with Peace Corps and working on the ground, my goal to continue supporting local efforts to advocate for sexual and reproductive health rights would not be realised. Without Rotary’s grant for my master’s degree, my pursuit of this goal would have been nearly impossible to achieve in such a short span of time. Now, I can contribute to the work of organisations around the world who envision universal access to the services and protections individuals need to fulfil their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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Empowering women today, and every day

By Azka Asif, Rotary Service and Engagement staff 

Today, International Women’s Day, is a time to celebrate the progress that’s been made in gender equality and women’s empowerment, and to call for continued action.

The Sustainable Development Goals number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and number 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning — are focused on promoting gender equality and education for all. We are living in a changing world, and that poses new opportunities as well as challenges for women. Check out these facts you should know about women in the evolving workplace.

The United Nations is calling on everyone to accelerate the 2030 Agenda by investing in girls and women. Below are some ways Rotary members are supporting the key targets of the 2030 Agenda.

Target: 

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education.

  • The Rotary Club of Ankleshwar is surrounded by rural and tribal villages in the Bharuch District of Gujarat State, India. The literacy rate in these villages is low and dropout rates of students in primary schools are high, particularly among girls. Rotary members went door to door in 55 villages to meet with parents to convince them to send their girls to school. Their efforts are helping 130 young women complete their secondary schooling, and will continue to support those students pursuing higher education. Read more.
  • In Nigeria, a university president and local Rotary clubs are fighting Boko Haram by educating and feeding victims. Margee Ensign, president of the American University in Nigeria, arrived in Yola in 2010, and found herself amidst efforts to help hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing attacks in the north. Learn more about the role education plays in conflict areas.

Target:

End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.

Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

  • The Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery (RAGAS) is working to free children and locals from slavery. Four hundred villagers live near Varanasi in India, 132 of them are in debt bondage slavery working on slaveholders’ brick kilns, farm and construction projects. Children are forced to work alongside their parents. RAGAS is working with anti-slavery organizations to provide education, food and ultimately free this enslaved village. Learn more about RAGAS and the work they do.
  • Recognizing the desperate need for domestic-violence services in their communities, Rotary clubs throughout Australia and New Zealand started fundraising and partnering with charities to raise awareness and work on prevention and victim support. Read more.

These are just a few examples of the many projects and initiatives Rotary members undertake to empower women and girls around the world. We want to hear from you! Share how your club or district is promoting gender equality in the comments below.

Watch three amazing Rotary women discussing the power and role women have in changing the world. Follow #IWD2017 on social media to share the work you are doing and join the global conversation.

Celebrating women and promoting gender equality

By Azka Asif, Rotary Programs Staff

Today, International Women’s Day, the world is celebrating the progress we’ve made towards gender equality and empowering women. Although much has been accomplished, there is still much more to be done.

TFotorCreatedo learn how we can assist the Rotary family in supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, and 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning, a group of staff from Rotary International attended a Women’s Day Global Health Symposium in Chicago. We were inspired by the strong speakers who shared about how they are working to elevate the status of girls and women around the world.

We hope our reflections below will encourage you to continue promoting gender equality across all of our communities through your clubs and districts:

Women, girls and peace

“I was particularly interested in the panel discussion on Women and Girls in Crisis Zones because of Rotary’s investment in peace. Learning that human traffickers, many of who target girls and women, have the mobility and means to arrive on the scene of a disaster zone within 24 hours, prior to many relief agencies, was an alarming fact.  E. Anne Peterson, Senior Vice President of Global Programs at AmeriCares, emphasized the need for NGOs and government agencies to be prepared to provide protection to vulnerable populations during this critical 24-hour period, even before the delivery of food and medical aid.”  Sarah Cunningham, Rotary Peace Centers

Maternal and child health

“I was moved by the work of Dr. Pat Mosena, President and Founder of Options for Youth, an organization that works in vulnerable neighborhoods in Chicago. I was particularly taken with the Subsequent Pregnancy Program (SPP,) a community based approach to assist first-time adolescent mothers in becoming self-sufficient before choosing to have another child. SPP focuses on developing long term relationships with home mentors. The work Options for Youth is doing is outstanding– it is vital that the needs of young mothers, many from low income and vulnerable situations, are attended to.”  Cate Sauer, RI Programs  

“I was inspired by the UNICEF Kid Power initiative. By getting active, kids can go on missions, earn points and unlock therapeutic food packets for malnourished children around the world. It’s a fun way to get our kids moving and can be easily integrated into schools. The statistics shared with us about youth inactivity are troubling. I appreciate the added connection they’ve made to also teach kids about new cultures and allow them an opportunity to make a difference. I went home and bought one for both my daughter and me.”  – Rebeca Mendoza, Rotary Grants

Creating leaders through sports

Personally, I was inspired by Katayoun Khosrowyar, the coach of Iran’s first under 14 girl’s national soccer team. Katayoun is empowering young girls who’ve been told their whole lives only boys are allowed to play soccer and pursue their dreams. Through sports, girls learn leadership skills as well as team work. Girls and women who play sports are more confident, have a more positive body image and higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports. I think it’s very important to encourage girls to follow their dreams and create young leaders that will grow up to do great things.


Join Rotary today at 1 p.m. CST Chicago time for an International Women’s Day live streamed panel with the World Bank on the power of women to change the world and improve lives through innovative and impactful projects. Follow the #RotaryWomen hashtag on Twitter and Facebook to read inspiring stories of Rotary Women in Action.

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Growing local economies and communities

By Azka Asif, Rotary Service and Engagement Staff 

To promote growth and development of local economies and communities, the United Nations (U.N.) Millennium Development Goals encourage us to focus on eradicating poverty, uplifting and empowering women, creating global partnerships for development, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

According to the 2014 U.N. progress report, extreme poverty has been reduced by half, women’s status in the labor market is improving, the debt burden on developing countries remains stable and the use of technology continues to grow with almost three billion people online and seven billion mobile-cellular subscriptions.

Throughout October, Rotary Economic and Community Development Month, we’re celebrating our progress and commitment to helping grow local economies. Here are just a few examples of club service projects helping improve communities around the world:

  • In Albania, the Rotary Clubs Gubbio and Korça worked with a local organization to provide 125 beehives to 25 families. To create a source of sustainable income, trainings on beekeeping and sales of bee products were also conducted. At the end of the year, the beehives were split, creating 125 additional beehives for 25 more families.
  • The Rotary Club of Apo, Nigeria, aimed to empower widowed women in their community by providing microcredit loans for trading along with small business trainings on how to grow their businesses.
  • In India, the Rotary Club of Jamshedpur West provided vocational training for girls and women who are breadwinners of their families. The trainings focused on developing skills in food processing, tailoring and computer proficiency allowing them to gain better employment or start their own business.
  • The Rotary Club of Kampala-Nsambya in Uganda conducted financial literacy trainings for hundreds of residents. The trainings focused on personal financial management, savings, loans, investments, insurance, and planning for retirement.
  • Working with a local organization, the Rotary Club of Makati-San Lorenzo, Philippines, provided microcredit loans to more than 1500 rice farmers in their community. Club members also conducted trainings on rice mill operations for sustainable business efforts.
  • The Rotaract Club of Cairo Royal, Egypt, installed solar home systems for families in a remote village without access to electricity, changing the lives of people in the community by securing a basic need.

As the United Nations announces their new Sustainable Development Goals, we realize that although progress has been made, our work is not yet finished. We must continue to focus on promoting sustainable economic growth and achieve employment and decent work for all*.

Throughout the month of October, encourage fellow Rotary members to check back here for tips, resources, and inspirational success stories to help plan club and district economic and community development projects. Add your voice to the conversation using the blog’s commenting feature and share how your club supports economic and community development initiatives on Rotary Showcase. 

*[United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda 2015]

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