Helping women a world away
Burnaby resident Lauryn Oates has been doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan since 2003, promoting international development, education and women's rights. Oates became interested in the cause after reading a newspaper article on the Taliban's treatment of women when she was just 14 years old.
The now 31year-old human rights activist recently returned to Canada to receive an Alumni Leadership Award from Royal Roads University in Victoria. The NOW caught up with Oates to talk about her work, life in Afghanistan and the plight of women there.
Question: Tell me about the main projects you're working on in Afghanistan?
Answer: My time is divided in half: I'm the part-time projects director with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), a charity founded in 1996.
The rest of the time I consult with other aid and donor agencies like UNICEF, the Nike Foundation, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Global Rights and others. With CW4WAfghan, our focus is education. We run a teacher-
training program, having trained over 4,000 teachers to date, as well as literacy classes, schools, and a community library program.
We also work to equip as many schools as possible with science labs and libraries. Each school costs $2,500 to outfit.
Finally, a work in progress for me right now is the development of the first e-learning lab for teachers in Afghanistan, a project we call the Darakht-e Danesh ("Knowledge Tree") Library for Educators.
Q: I've also seen your byline with Huffington Post and Postmedia. You seem to write a lot as well. Who else do you write for?
A: I also write for the Calgary Herald, Troy Media, and Herizons Magazine, and occasionally for other publications like The Guardian, an Afghan paper called The Daily Outlook, and others. But editors can find me frustrating because I'm pretty sporadic!
I'm squeezing in writing between managing projects and programs in the field. I also blog for an online magazine called The Propagandist and occasionally for a blog called Butterflies & Wheels, run by the secularism activist Ophelia Benson.
Q: Why do you do this work?
A: I do it because I believe in the universalism of human rights. If we in Canada could not live with the idea of our own daughters, sisters, mothers, or wives being denied the right to go to school, to work, to walk in the streets, and to exercise basic freedoms then how can we accept it for the women and girls of Afghanistan? I also do it because I think the Taliban are fascists, and history has told us that when we accommodate fascism, it comes back to bite. We need to be clear that the ideology of the Taliban is at odds with humanity.
Q: What's daily life like for Afghans now?
A: It's another world from a decade ago. The economy is way better, most Afghans have access to basic health care, nearly 10 million kids attend school, and a lot of rebuilding has taken place. People are free from the yoke of the Taliban, and the media sector is flourishing. Afghan music has made a come-back, along with so many other things that were banned by the Taliban, like kite flying.
But the traumas of war are still there: thousands of people suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, more basic infrastructure is needed, and restoring the rule of law is still a work in progress. And of course, the Taliban are still around, perpetrating their violence from the shadows now.
Q: How about the women and girls? Have things improved for them?
A: Massively. Women have returned to public life. They are visible in the society once again. You see them in the streets, on TV, in universities, running businesses, working in the government, and serving in the parliament (in fact Afghanistan has more women in its parliament than Canada does!).
There is a strong women's movement, with lots of outspoken activists. Attitudes towards the role of women are changing among men. There is no doubt still a long way to go, but I don't think many people in Canada realize the enormity of the changes of the last decade - for the better.
Q: Are you targeted by the Taliban because of the work you do training teachers who educate girls?
I am generally not a direct target, but all aid workers - Afghan and foreigners alike - are at risk by working in a war zone. More aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world, usually from being near a target when a bomb went off. The Taliban are more interested in military and government targets; however, lately they have turned their attention increasingly to international agencies (like when they bombed the Red Cross last month) and to non-governmental organizations. However, Afghan teachers, principals, schools, and students have all been the targets of Taliban violence. Hundreds of girls' schools have been burned down.
Q: Tell me about the poisoning attack on the school that you worked in.
A: The Taliban have a wide range of methods for attacking the education system. One method is to poison school buildings or school wells.
A very large girls' high school in Kabul where we trained teachers was recently poisoned; however, the girls recovered.
Q: How do you manage working in unstable and dangerous conditions all the time?
A: There is a risk to being in Afghanistan, but there is a greater risk to doing nothing. The impact I've made with my colleagues at CW4WAfghan has been well worth the risk.
I feel a moral obligation to do this work. It's also been my great privilege to work alongside Afghan women and girls, and to witness this extraordinary decade of change in the country. I can't imagine doing anything else.
Q: What's the closest call you've had?
A: Hard to choose! I've been nearby several large explosions in Kabul.
Last month there was a long shoot-out not too far from our office. I once accidentally walked into a mine field. But to be honest, life can be surprisingly normal in Afghanistan. I go grocery shopping, to the gym, see friends, eat out . life goes on during a war.
Q: What's your ideal goal? What would you like to achieve most through your work?
A: I want every girl in Afghanistan to have a fighting chance of setting foot in a classroom. I want Canadians to recognize that all people - regardless of culture, religion, gender or nationality - are entitled to the same basic rights that we expect in our own society, like the right to an education.
And most of all, I want there to be peace in Afghanistan.