This year, International Women’s Day is celebrated today, March 8th.  The theme this year?  Be Bold For Change!

It’s very appropriate then, to share this story today.  Deb, one of our volunteers, served with the RCAF, and in 2004, was with the Headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.  I was recently chatting with her about the upcoming International Women’s Day, and she recalled a very special time, an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, one that culminated in what she refers to as “the defining moment of my tour”.  I am happy to share this with you, told in Deb’s words.

 

The Calendar Idea ~

“Three of us female Majors serving in Afghanistan under General Hillier, came up with an idea to mark International Women’s Day in Afghanistan.  It was only five days prior to the official event and we decided on producing a calendar featuring female personnel of NATO stationed in Kabul, with all proceeds from the sale of the calendar benefitting Afghan women in distress.  We received immediate approval from Gen. Hillier and pressed forward with our plans.  In Gen. Hillier’s words, ‘the role of women in Afghanistan, while extremely suppressed by the Taliban, is fundamental to the future prosperity of this country…this calendar project is one small way the military women of NATO HQ can assist Afghan women to move forward and take their rightful place in Afghanistan public and political life.’

While it took a bit of convincing to get the other Nations’ female military members to participate, once they realized what we were trying to do, they all pitched in.  Our small idea became officially the ‘Military Women Assisting the Empowerment of Afghan Women’ calendar.  The original plan was to sell the calendar during International Women’s Week with all proceeds going to women’s shelters in the Kabul city area.  Our first print run, sitting in front of a rather old colour photocopier for 10 hours produced 100 copies.  Good and bad news… we sold out in one hour and raised about $1500 Cdn, the bad news… back to the photocopier!

 

Unfortunately the mission and our jobs took precedence so our original plan only went that far.  However, like all good plans, this one took on a life of its own.  Mr. Friesen (our photographer for the calendar) solicited support from a printer in the Netherlands to produce a second print run of 500 calendars, free of charge.  So we were back in business.  Email traffic between our families and friends in Canada saw a great interest in the calendar and I coordinated the funds coming in from Canada.  We raised close to $15,000 in total.  More than we could ever have imagined and in Afghanistan this was equivalent to millions!

How did we decide, in a country of so many people in need, who would benefit from the calendar’s proceeds and which women’s shelter we would choose?  Our greatest fear was that our money would not reach the right hands and that those truly deserving of it would not benefit.  Through careful research and personal attestations/references, we were able to find the ideal recipient of our donation, Dr. Sima Samar and her organization Shuhadra.

Since 1989, she had been operating schools for girls and healthy clinics in many of the provinces of Afghanistan as well as in the refugee camps in Northern Pakistan.  She has shown an incredible commitment towards assisting Afghan women in their struggles to end their oppression and to provide them with access to healthcare and education services.  She is a strong advocate for the involvement of Afghan women in government and the reconstruction of civil society in Afghanistan.  In 2001, the Canadian Human Rights NGO, Rights and Democracy, awarded Dr. Samar their John Humphrey Freedom Award.  Just after 911, and the deployment of American troops to Afghanistan, Dr. Sima Samar was appointed the New Interim Government Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Women’s Affairs by President Karzai.  This position had never been filled by a woman and it provided hope for the improvement of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Now I believe you would agree but whom better than Dr. Sima Samar to use our money for the betterment of women and girls in Kabul city.  One of the highlights of my tour was meeting Dr. Samar, an unassuming woman who had made such a significant contribution to her country and all in the face of personal peril.

Unfortunately just prior to our arrival in Kabul, Dr. Samar was required to step down as the Deputy PM due to the continuous threats and attempts on her life; however, she retained her position as the Minister of Women’s Affairs.  She was still full of life and enthusiasm for the changes and improvements she saw each day.  She truly was an inspiration as she supported over three women’s shelters and many girls’ schools in the North.  I still remember her sincere gratefulness in our small donation to her organization.  However, the best was yet to come when we saw firsthand what our money would do for them.  Our money paid the rent for a year, provided beds and new kitchen equipment, clothing, and even had money left over for a girls’ school in the North, providing books and writing materials for hundreds of young students.

International Women’s Day Celebration in Kabul, 2004 ~ 

As one of the few Senior ranking women on the mission, I was asked to participate in the International Women’s Day celebration at Kabul University Campus.  I will never forget this event as what happened at it was ground breaking.  This event was truly amazing, as many of us who had worked on the calendar were asked to attend the first International Women’s Day celebration day to be held in Kabul.  It was held at the University of Kabul’s campus and it was amazing to see the numbers of women standing in line to attend.  Security was tight as President Karzai would be making a speech during the event and everyone went through metal detectors (despite us having loaded weapons in our possession).  As we sat down, there were many glances our way as we were in uniform and of course, we were not covered by hijabs or burqas.  Fortunately we had our translator with us and when the women nearby started asking questions we were able to communicate.  There was a lengthy wait for President Karzai’s arrival, so our conversations were quite informal.  A woman next to us had her baby girl with her and we spoke to her of our families.  They got the biggest kick out of us…especially when they asked us if we were married.  Some of us were and some not and given our ‘advancing ages’ they were quite surprised to know that we could remain single without social disgrace (most women in Afghanistan are married by the age of 16).  But to be still looking for the ‘right person’ shocked them as their marriages had all been arranged at a very early age.  Finally President Karzai arrived and provided an uplifting speech encouraging the women of Kabul and Afghanistan as a whole to vote at the upcoming general elections.  When he was finished he asked if there were any questions.  Now normally no woman would dare speak to a man in public and especially not to the President.  But that day we witnessed the unbelievable courage of four women to stand up and address President Karzai.  They asked poignant questions with respect to their safety at the polling stations and the publicity campaign for women voting.  They asked of other provinces’ participation in the voting process and how information was being passed to them.

When people ask me what I remember the most of my tour and what moments I will cherish…well I believe this was the defining moment of my tour.  Realizing that these women felt secure enough to do this made each and every military member in attendance proud that day.  I will never forget them.”