The U.S. Agency for International Development’s $416 million, five-year program to boost women’s leadership runs the risk of being irrelevant in a country where, just last month, a woman was beaten to death by a mob of men in broad daylight for allegedly burning a Quran. In a video taken by an onlooker, a man is seen taking a concrete block to smash her head. Her body was then set on fire and thrown into a river.
The issue is not just the legitimate concerns over the difficulties of implementing, monitoring and assessing the impact of the program amidst a NATO pullout, as the inspector general of the government watchdog on Afghanistan reconstruction pointed out.
A few years after 9/11, I worked for an aid agency in Kabul. One of the memories I cherish most is that of Sahar, a soft-spoken Afghan who was 20 then. Her mom didn’t like her working, because she was a woman. But she showed up every morning, her head wrapped in chador and her large brown eyes both cautious and curious. I taught her how to use Excel and convert Afghanis into U.S. dollars. She said she wanted to be an interior designer someday.
One time, she told me in passing that she’d never smoked a cigarette. So I bought a pack, locked the office door, and showed her how to smoke (“Inhale, Sahar, inhale”). I don’t think she enjoyed the taste, but she was thrilled to hold a cigarette.