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Trudy Rubin: Help Afghanistan help itself

The world may be collapsing, but some individuals won’t let that stop them from working for change in its most troubled corners.

This is a good time to spotlight two such individuals: an Afghan activist for women’s rights named Suraya Pakzad and a local businessman, Aldo Magazzeni, who builds water systems in Afghanistan for impoverished villages. His efforts, undertaken in tandem with Pakzad’s, help make village elders more sympathetic to her work.

Pakzad and Magazzeni run grass-roots outfits that are polar opposites of the huge foreign contractors that failed so badly in Iraq. At a time when the Taliban is gaining strength, these kinds of organizations need more U.S. support.

I first met Pakzad last year when she received the State Department’s Women of Courage award. A university graduate and mother of six, she started helping Afghan women in 1998 in Kabul, setting up secret girls’ schools when the Taliban banned female education.

After the Taliban fell, she established the Voice of Women Organization (VWO) and moved to the western city of Herat, where women have fewer protections. VWO promotes girls’ education, provides job training, and offers women legal and social aid.

This includes helping women in prison and providing a safe house for women abused by families or husbands. VWO also provides legal aid for women who seek divorce – in a land where women are regarded as chattel.

This courageous woman often receives death threats, yet the government won’t give her a security guard. Her husband and her two elder daughters support her efforts; her 15-year-old daughter thinks her efforts will be fruitless. “I’m on TV while her friends’ mothers wear burkas,” Pakzad said.

But she presses on, because she feels change is possible and wants to help girls like Mahahba, one of 29 women and 12 children in the shelter. Mahahba was married at age 11 to a 45-year-old, who brutalized her and forced her to have sex before puberty.

Pakzad said the legal situation for Afghan women had improved, but courts and police were often unsympathetic. Her organization holds three-day workshops for police and community leaders to explain what constitutes illegal violence against women. Given the deeply religious nature of Afghan society, she shows that laws that protect women are not anti-Islamic.

But the situation for women is deteriorating as the Taliban regains strength: “In the south of the country, girls’ schools are closed and families don’t dare to send their daughters,” she said.

The Afghan central government fails to provide security and basic services. Unless Afghans see their lives improve, they will gravitate toward the Taliban, if only to stop the violence.

So what is to be done? Pakzad said more foreign aid should go directly to Afghan nongovernmental organizations for small projects that suit local needs. Too often, U.S. and other foreign aid goes to ill-designed projects run by big contractors, or through Afghan officials who take a hefty cut.

Pakzad’s lament reminds me of how the huge, failed U.S. aid projects in Iraq contrasted with small, direct projects funded by U.S. military commanders. Have we learned any lessons?

Magazzeni, a partner in a company making industrial fasteners in Lumberton, N.J., uses his own savings, and money from individual donors, to build water systems in Afghanistan.

In 2004, he traveled alone to the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan. Without benefit of an engineering degree, he spent months helping villagers design pumping systems that would save them from hiking miles for fresh water.

Magazzeni met Pakzad in 2004 in Kabul and now builds water systems in the Herat areas where she is helping women. For $20,000, with local village volunteers, he put together one system in 12 days that serves 35,000 people.

Pakzad and Magazzeni are helping Afghans help themselves, an approach that is crucial to aiding women, and halting the return of Taliban terror. If the Obama team wants to help the Afghan people, that’s a model it needs to adopt.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is

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