Forget the Tea Cups, Think About the Women

Just when you thought there could be no more bad PR for the war in Afghanistan, a crippling 60 Minutes investigation about celebrated author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s best-selling works, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, has cast doubts not only on the books themselves but on aid organizations in the region.

Author and adventurist Jon Krakauer, who once funded Mortenson’s nonprofit Central Asia Institute with thousands of dollars of his own money, added fuel to 60 Minutes’ fire by releasing the longform article “Three Cups of Deceit” [PDF] on Byliner. He had already alleged on the TV program that Mortenson “has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built.”

The worse thing about the Three Cups of Tea scandal is the possible damage it could do to legitimate fundraising efforts to help the Afghan people, especially since Mortenson is now being accused of using donations for his nonprofit to fund expensive marketing of his books. His books have made people feel empowered and hopeful about giving to the cause of Afghan education, especially for girls. The Daily Beast’s Michele Goldberg worries about the backlash:

If this were just about one author’s reputation, the story would have few repercussions outside the publishing world. But Mortenson is not just a memoirist—he’s also the single most famous champion of the transformative power of education for girls in poor countries. If his downfall leads to skepticism about his cause, it would be not just a scandal, but a tragedy.

We can’t let that happen; we need to stay focused on the very real needs of Afghan girls and women. It was partially in their name that the war was fought in the first place, the plight of Afghan women serving as an emotional tool to garner support for the U.S. invasion back in 2001.

Regardless of how that war was marketed, Afghan women and girls still face tremendous insecurity and require consistent attention and commitment from the international community. More than 70 percent of Afghan women and girls are victims of violence, girls’ schools are regularly bombed, one in eight Afghan women die in childbirth, and there are widespread campaigns to make vocal women’s rights voices vanish.

Since Afghan women and girls have borne the brunt of more than 30 years of war, U.S. policy in the region can never be successful until women’s needs–for safety, education, health care and increased political presence–are addressed. A society that has experienced so much war cannot heal by excluding 50 percent of its population. It’s vital to invest in women and girls, not only because that’s what the U.S. said it would do, but because it is the winning strategy.

As the media and public gasp over Mortenson’s alleged deceit, the spotlight must be turned back to where it belongs: on Afghan women and girls. We should not be deterred from helping to improve their present situation and ensure a brighter future.

Cross-posted, in somewhat different form, from Forbes Woman.


Anushay Hossain began her feminist career as an intern at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on microfinance for women and girls in her native country, Bangladesh. A University of Virginia graduate, Anushay joined the Feminist Majority Foundation's Nobel Peace Prize nominated Campaign for Afghan Women before completing her MA in Gender and Development at the University of Sussex. She spent a year at the United Nations Development Fund for Women's (UNIFEM UK) London office before returning to Washington, DC where she invests the majority of her work analyzing the impact of US foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls around the world.