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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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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Bringing vocational service to life through club projects

By Beth Keck, member of the Rotary Club of Bentonville, AR, USA, and member of RI’s Vocational Service Committee

My club does not have a vocational service committee.  However, last year when I surveyed my colleagues, it became apparent that the concept of vocational service is deeply integrated into the fabric of our club.  My fellow club members knew that through their Rotary affiliation they were using their skills and expertise to do good in our community and the world.

For example, although at the time we did not consciously consider our club’s International Women’s Day event as a vocational service project, it is an example of an application of the concept by my club.

At the 2014 RI International Convention in Sydney, a local Women in Rotary group told my husband and me about their community International Women’s Day program.  We realized that while large employers in our area held internal celebrations, students and employees of small- and medium-sized businesses did not have access to such inspiring professional development events.  With women making up only 24 percent of our club membership, we were looking for a way to make Rotary more visible to the women in our community.  Organizing an International Women’s Day event seemed like a good approach.

Tapping the expertise of our members, and with support from area women leaders and Rotary International Directors Jennifer Jones and Mary Beth Growney-Selene, our club organized its first International Women’s Day professional development event last March.  More than 200 students, women and men from our community attended and heard five accomplished women speak about their careers and families.

This year we are hosting our second International Women’s Day event on 9 March and look forward to bringing more inspiring stories of achievement to an even larger audience in our community.

The concept of vocational service is rooted in the second Object of Rotary.  Every time my fellow club members and I say or apply the 4-Way Test, we reinforce our aspiration for high ethical standards.

By including men and women in our club from diverse professions and backgrounds, we recognize the worthiness of all useful occupations. Whether it is a lawyer from my club providing pro bono work, a financial adviser helping a low-income family get on a better financial footing, or a club committee organizing an International Women’s Day professional development event, we are using our skills, expertise and occupations to serve society.

January is Rotary’s Vocational Service Month, an ideal time to reflect on how the concept of vocational service is being woven into the fabric of each of our clubs around the world.  Post your club’s vocational service project and join the conversation in My Rotary’s discussion groups.

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