A Year After the Taliban Took Over, Leadership Programs in Afghanistan Still Raise up Girls

“Our goal is to become active and powerful women. We learn what our rights are, how we can define our rights, how we can raise our voices.”

17-year-old Farzana tells Ms. that a local NGO that provides support for women and girls has been a lifeline in the face of the Taliban occupation. “We must continue and try to help the community around us in different ways, even though the worst situation is here,” she says. (Direct Relief / Flickr)

On the morning of Aug. 15, 2021, seventeen-year-old athlete Farzana* woke up and prepared to run twenty kilometers down the streets of Kabul, as she did every morning. She was training for her upcoming track race competing with an all women’s team for the city of Kabul, Afghanistan.

As she walked to the door, her mother stopped her and told her she was not allowed to leave. “She told me that the Taliban would kill me if I left the house in the athletic clothes I was wearing,” Farzana said in an interview. “I got into an argument with my family because I did not believe them. I could not imagine that the Taliban had come.”

She did not believe it. As a teenager, Farzana was relatively independent. She had lived in Kabul since she was six with her seven siblings. Ever since her father died five years ago, her mother had supported their family. Farzana went to school and did extracurricular activities, such as running and participating in a program with a local NGO that works on leadership development for Afghan youth. She joined the program when she was in kindergarten. (For security purposes, the NGO will go unnamed).

“My family and I moved to Kabul because of our poverty,” she said. “We lived in a place that fed and sheltered poor people. That is where I began my education. In kindergarten, I went to [the program] at the recommendation of one of my cousins. At that point, the NGO provided social activities and social programs. I found myself being taught how to be strong enough to first change myself, then my family, and then I can change the rest of my community.”

In 2017, Farzana was a founding participant in a new program created by the NGO, based on the principle that women and girls can help and learn from each other, while supporting one another.

Not only does the program provide a safe space for girls to learn and empower each other, it also allows the transfer of information to other girls outside of the program. “We wanted to have a program for girls to raise their voices and talk in a relaxed setting, which was different from other places,” Farzana said. “We wanted educational classes to help us to improve our lives and access the new world which we could transfer to other women.”

Many girls were accepted into the new program, especially those who had few resources for extracurricular activities outside of the NGO. “In Afghanistan, most families are poor and cannot support girls in their family,” said Farzana. “In my family, no one is educated so they can’t help me with my studies. The NGO program helped me to continue my school lessons. Now, I am in first position at my school.”

As the program grew to include support groups, educational classes, vocational training and public speaking, Farzana took on a leadership role as a senior member and began mentoring younger participants.

She became a particularly strong leader in the athletics program, which gave the girls the opportunity to run competitively in Kabul. “It was the biggest happiness for me,” she said. “We had a lot of achievements in sports competitions. A few of our trainees participated in a race and were selected as runners for the national running team of Afghanistan.”

However, she says that the most meaningful course so far has been the NGO’s leadership program, in which girls learn how to change the community around them. “Every week we learn how we can be a lesson for others while making people listen to us,” she said. “Our goal is to become active and powerful women. We learn what our rights are, how we can define our rights, how we can raise our voices, and how we can understand our feelings. These lessons are not just lessons for leadership, but life lessons as well. These lessons helped us to continue as powerful girls in society.”

Farzana planned to continue as a leader in the program as the NGO expanded the pilot to groups all around Afghanistan; she even dreamed of the day when the program could be introduced to girls all around the world. However, these goals were put on hold after the Taliban took over in Kabul.

After the U.S. left Afghanistan and the Taliban took over the country in Aug. 2021, the NGO temporarily stopped its in-person activities. The uncertainty of the new situation and the sudden change in routine left the girls feeling isolated and lonely. Farzana understood that Afghanistan had lost its government and the Afghan women had lost their rights. “My heart broke. I sat at home and I cried a lot. For a few days, I didn’t go outside,” she says. “We lost everything, our freedom, our rights, our lessons, our schools, our university, our positions. We had no reason to be alive, but what should we do? For a month we were depressed. We cried and slept a lot. It
was in these days that we wondered what became of our hopes.”

Afghan women march as they chant slogans and hold banners during a women’s rights protest in Kabul on January 16, 2022. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Since last August, public high schools and some universities have been closed for girls in most parts of the country. Many Afghans are jobless and hungry, without food. The economy collapsed after the U.S. froze 9.5 billion dollars of funds from the Afghan Central Bank.

The NGO that had changed Farzana’s life began offering virtual program activities by the end of August, and Farzana played a key role in organizing the members into online groups so they could continue to support and learn from each other. The girls were able to resume in-person activities at the NGO in October, but adjustments to the program had to be made based on the rules the new Taliban government.

Farzana says that if the program hadn’t reopened, her and her close friends “may not be alive.” “We did not have anything to be alive for. It is hard to see your family dying from lack of food, from depression, to watch them suffer. Now, we are so lucky and happy that we have our NGO, our home. We have people that listen to us, and help each other. We have other women who listen to us. These things make us happy and give us energy and give us power to act.”

Since the Taliban took power, Farzana’s community looks different. “Everywhere we go we have to wear a full hijab and a face covering. When I went out, the Taliban asked me, ‘Why are your eyes open, looking at me in this way?’, I said ‘Sorry, my eyes are open so I can see what’s in front of me.'”

Taliban officials have threatened Farzana for doing everything from driving without a male family member, to trying to go to school. “With their words and their actions, it is clear that they see women differently,” she said. “We are inferior to them. They don’t care what we think or what we feel. It is hard to be a girl because they don’t see my talent or intelligence. ”

Despite the restrictions, Farzana and the other girls continue to take action — one of their latest projects is creating care packages to send to girls around Afghanistan. The packages hold motivational books, pencils, crayons, a notebook for drawing and writing feelings and hand-written letters. “It makes me happier that girls are able to see that they have support from other women,” she said. “When I struggle, it is amazing for me to hear that girls appreciate it. They tell us that they love it, and these things make us happy.”

We must continue and try to help the community around us in different ways, even though the worst situation is here.

Farzana feels a lot better with the community that this organization has provided, but worries for the girls that are not enrolled in any programs like the one she participates in. “They are hopeless, I think. They are depressed and hopeless. Their father or their mother are jobless, their brother is jobless, there is no money or education, their school is gone. My heart is sad that they don’t have anyone to tell them that life is full of challenges, and sometimes these dark times come but we must be strong and we must continue and be powerful. We must continue and try to help the community around us in different ways, even though the worst situation is here.”

“Sometimes I cry thinking about how much Afghanistan has changed, but what can we do? We must focus on the things that we can change,” she says. “I can focus on my own life, I can read books, I can teach my sisters, my family. I am teaching them English. I can help social groups that need it. I can’t change all of the government but I told myself I must focus on my life.”

Though Farzana and her friends can no longer attend school, and now have to run inside on treadmills instead of outside in the street, they refuse to give up hope. “Everyday my friends and I talk about what we should do and we find alternatives. Our NGO meetings and our friends, these things are a bright candle that gives us light. Around Afghanistan, we are the luckiest girls that we are able to continue in this environment. My heart aches for the other girls who are still at home.”

To these girls, and to the women of the world, she extends a broader message of transnational solidarity. “We send our love to all of you, and we want your support. Listen and give a short time of your day for Afghan girls who are living in Afghanistan. Don’t forget about the girls.”

(You can donate to Farzana’s NGO securely on PayPal here).

*Farzana’s name has been changed for safety.

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Clara Scholl is a Ms. editorial intern and is completing her undergraduate studies at New York University. She is the arts editor for NYU's independent student newspaper, Washington Square News. Clara has previously worked as a girl advocate with the Working Group on Girls at the UN Commission on the Status of Women from 2018 to 2021. You can find her on Twitter @scholl_clara.