Even though I haven’t set foot in a college classroom in four years, I’ve made it my goal to never stop learning. I’m fascinated by history. I’m intrigued by biology, even if science has never been my forte. And I consider it my duty to learn as much as I can about human rights issues, social justice, and international events.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading From Outrage to Courage by Anne Firth Murray; it’s the textbook for a class I’m taking through Stanford via Coursera. Next week’s assignment is based on chapter seven of From Outrage to Courage, called “Women Caught in Conflict and Refugee Situations.”
The timing couldn’t be better. As a woman who often turns to books when I don’t know what to do, this book is giving me incredible insight into a world about which I am remarkably ignorant. After all, how can any of us make a difference in the world if we don’t first learn how—and where—to help?
In this chapter, Murray shares some facts about Taliban rule in Afghanistan from the late 1990s. I was born in 1995, so while I grew up touched by 9/11 (my uncle survived the Pentagon), I’ve had a limited understanding of the Taliban and Middle East-based terrorism. I came of age knowing only the oppressed version of the Middle East, the way American forces tried (and failed) to implement a new form of government in Afghanistan. And as admirable as those efforts may be, I’m speechless as I read about what life was like for women and children with the Taliban in power—the life many women may soon live.
The Taliban utilizes many forms of violence against women. In my career, I’ve learned the violence isn’t only physical. For example, denying someone access to essential care is also a form of violence. And when the Taliban denied women access to healthcare in the late 90s, that harmed generations. Pregnant women had limited access to prenatal care. Nursing mothers who needed help were unable to acquire guidance. Teenage girls weren’t able to have questions they had about their bodies answered. Additionally, many common ailments and injuries went untreated.
These are forms of violence.
In the United States, I believe many of us recognize our healthcare system is broken. However, even though the medical bills for a simple injury may be overpriced, I take solace in the fact that I can usually access medical care if I need it. “Usually” sounds a lot like a privilege, though, when I consider how many women and children would’ve been unable to access medical care in the late 90s after the Taliban eliminated their access to hospitals.
I realize that many of the issues we fight for in America, specifically the feminist topics, oftentimes more readily protect the privileged, rather than create equity to the oppressed. I realize that we have a long way to go in America, too.
And I realize that the women in Afghanistan today have feelings I can’t even begin to imagine, because in 2021, communities are already starting to resemble the past.
I don’t know enough about the American military occupation in the Middle East over the last two decades to have a well-formed opinion about it. I won’t comment on what I don’t know.
What I do know, though, is that during wartime, families are torn apart. We no longer live in a world where wars are fought in a field somewhere, destroying a farm’s crops but leaving homes relatively unscathed—unless we look at Sherman’s March to the Sea in late 1864, for example. Wars aren’t being fought in battlefields; they’re being fought in communities.
According to Save the Children, in 2002, approximately 90% of casualties in recent conflicts were civilians. Between 2010 and 2020, every day, an average of 25 children were killed or injured in war zones. This is the result of both deliberate targeting of civilians and “collateral damage,” such as deaths caused by airstrikes. These civilians—these victims of so-called collateral damage—are irreplaceable human beings. They aren’t buildings that can be repaired or constructed anew. They are women and children, by an overwhelming majority of nearly 80%.
And if these women and children manage to survive the violence literally rained upon them with injuries, if the Taliban closes hospitals in 2021 the way they did in 1996, where will these women and children go? Will they even be able to reach the hospitals to which they are permitted access? If only the women are injured, possibly while protecting their children, who will care for those boys and girls if their mothers cannot?
According to the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, the Taliban “made no distinction between combatants and non-combatants.” In simpler terms, that means the women and children—the innocent parties who live in war-torn communities—will rarely be treated with mercy. They may be treated as enemies of the Taliban.
Throughout history, one of the core weapons against women during wartime is rape. This may be in the form of a single assault, or several assaults by multiple men in succession, or several assaults over a period of time while the woman is held in captivity.
If the Taliban chooses to implement sexual violence as well—assuming the women survive the violence—where will they turn for medical attention? What will they do if they become pregnant from the rape? As a survivor of sexual violence, my whole body aches for these women.
My soul hurts for the men and women who survived Taliban rule in the 90s, for those who survived it once and are facing it again, and for the new generation of women my age, who have career dreams and young families like I do…for all the people whose lives are being derailed by terrorism.
And as a mother, my arms are open and heavy, my heart weary for the children whose childhoods have already been, and that will be, lost to war.
I desperately want to save them all, and I’m furious I can’t.
Even if I had the funds to help all of the refugees either relocate or provide shelter and a home for the orphans of this way, I wouldn’t have the time or mental stamina to help each one as they deserve. So, as Mr. Rogers told us his mother would encourage him to do, I look for the helpers.
I am heartened by organizations like the Afghan Women’s Resource Center, which was formed in 1989 by a group of Afghan women refugees to help other fellow women refugees. I’m heartened by the journalists who refuse to let this crisis in Afghanistan be ignored by the international community. And I am heartened by my children—my son (4) who already recognizes injustice and boldly declares, “We gotta stop those bad guys!” and my daughter (2) who will raise a bent arm while making a fist and shout, “We can do it!”
Following my daughter’s example, I’m choosing to focus on what I can do to be a helper. I can remedy my ignorance of the Taliban’s history, taking time to learn more about this world we live in. I can use my writing to spread awareness of the reality those in Afghanistan are currently facing.
And I can raise world changers, two children who will one day be adults, informed and empowered, and who advocate for a better life for everyone. That’s where I find my hope—by doing what I can from where I am, one day and one book at a time. These are things we can all do, even without being boots on the ground in Afghanistan. I’m a work-from-home mother of toddlers, living barely above the poverty line in the American Midwest, and I can still advocate for the women and children in Afghanistan.
We can all make a difference from where we are. We can start by learning about the crisis so we can identify the needs of the people involved, and we can take action. Even if we can’t take action on-location, we can still amplify the voices and needs of those who are in the middle of the conflict. Instead of watching the news and saying that we’ll never forget the images we’ve seen, we can look for the helpers who are trying to make life easier for those fighting to survive the war. We can find out what they need, then we can try to meet those needs.
We may be half a world apart, and we can still be helpers, too.