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From Mt. View to Afghanistan

Aid Worker Focuses on Women and Girls

New America Media, Q&A// Video, Words: Annette Fuentes// Video: Michael Siv Posted: Mar 14, 2009

Editor's Note: Rosemary Stasek, the former mayor of Mountain View, Calif., is the founder and executive director of A Little Help, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, with a focus on women. Stasek first went to the country in 1999 and four years ago, she moved there permanently. Stasek came to the Bay Area in February to do public speaking about the current state of affairs in Afghanistan for the Afghan people. She spoke with NAM editor Annette Fuentes about the challenges ahead for the Afghan people and those working with them to rebuild their country.

What was your entry to aid work in Afghanistan?

In my role as mayor of Mountain View, I became very involved with the Afghan-American community after September 11. I discovered this incredible community that were my constituents and started working with terrific women in the community. When the Taliban finally moved out, this community was central in going back to do reconstruction and I was invited as part of a delegation. What wasnt on agenda was for me to fall in love with Afghanistan.

When I came back, I saw big players moving in to do aid workthe UN, larger nonprofits. But they move so slowly. There were huge projects that needed to get started but there was nothing that pulled me. I started the nonprofit A Little Help, and in early 2003 went back for my first project, which was on the womens prison.

What was Afghanistan like in those days? What drew you there?

Kabul was completely and utterly destroyed but what was in place was this intoxicating atmosphere of energy and optimism. Everyone was exuding confidence and energy: Were here, were going to rebuild this and make it the way it should be. You felt you had a front row seat for the rebirth of a country. When in your life would you have the opportunity to be so central? When I went in 2003 to work on the womens prison, I didnt know anything. I showed up at the office of the minister of justiceI waltz into his office, give him this Mountain View pen, and I say, Hello, Im here to work in the womens prison.

Some might say it shows arrogance to just waltz into government offices, as you did. Did Afghans have any resentment?

The hugest percentage of Americans there were Afghan Americans. (I am not). Were they arrogant? There absolutely was tension. I didnt feel it against me, but there was some. What you often heard was, Where were you when we were living through everything we had lived through? It wasnt entirely justified. The people who left and came to the United States came in 1979 when the Communists were executing their families. Pretty much every family I knew in the United States lost someone in the Soviet occupation.

What has happened in Afghanistan since that period of hope?

What has happened is disheartening, a loss of optimism. A sense of opportunity squandered. People who should have been pushed aside are back in power. Afghans who were there through it all and remember the warlords who destroyed Kabul now watch them on TV in parliament. That is disturbing. They should be on trial for war crimes. There is Gen. [Abdul] Dostum who is a thug. He is held to be so powerful that even the president wont do anything against him. People look at him and say, If he is above the law, then what progress has been made? Thats on the political side.

On the more mundane side, its been seven years now, and Kabul still doesnt have electricity. Most of country cant take advantage of agricultural products because there are no roads. There are some improvements but Afghans see how much money has come in and they see little results.

The other factor is the corruption of the government, and in my opinion that is the number one problem facing Afghanistan. From who gets appointed police chief to getting your drivers license, corruption is absorbed into government. It gives the Taliban leverage in provinces where they are in control, in the south and easton the border of Kabul in Wardak province--they are in control. They have set up a parallel government. They have a security structure and their own judicial system. If you have some land disputes, which are enormous, or family or criminal disputes, you go to a court and the result is entirely the consequence of who pays the judge money. So people turn to the Talibans courts, which follow Sharia. They are seen as being outside corruption. That makes them really powerful in areas they control.

Your nonprofit, A Little Help, works primarily with women. What are your goals?

Were always looking for women outside the mainstream of Afghan society by circumstance or by choice. We went to the womens prison because the government was saying they were not deserving. No one was helping these women.

Are there many women in prison, and what crimes did they commit?

In 2003, there were 20 women in there for a crime loosely translated as running away--mostly from arranged marriages or to marry someone not arranged. Then there was no justice system, corrupt or otherwise. They never went before a judge. But these were the lucky ones. They were brought by their families. The unlucky ones were those whose families killed them.

Things have changed dramatically in the past six years. Sadly, a lot more women are in prison. There is a new facility, which the UN built called the Womens detention center. It houses 95 women and 85 children--young children come to prison with their mothers, and quite frankly, its a much better situation. When women are in prison because of dishonor to the family, [the children] are at danger of physical and psychological abuse, so its better for kids to be with their mothers. Its also safer. More women are also in prison for drug trafficking. They are being used as drug mules. They are seen as low profile ways to move drugs. The last time I was there I saw 10 foreign women, most from Africa, for drug crimes.

A Little Help has an innovative program for improving maternal health with police officers. How did that come about?

We were always involved in womens health care and I had an opportunity to interact with women police officers, of whom there are about 279. There is active recruitment of women police officers because of segregation in society. People have to be thoroughly searched going into government buildings and a man cant do that on a woman. The other issue is if police need to come into a home, you cant have a man go into the womens portion of a home. Afghan homes have a private part where women are. You need women police.

We were looking at issues of maternal mortality. Afghanistan has the second highest in world. Every 20 minutes, a woman dies in childbirth. There just arent enough trained doctors and idwives. Another issue is if the doctor is a man, the womans family may not let her see him. I saw policewomen as a group of women who would have a place in their community and I came up with a 10-day obstetric training. I wanted to give them enough technical information to know if something was going wrong in a pregnancy. We were also training them to be advocates for women, to be able to go to the mother-in-law and say, This situation dangerous, she is in serious danger and needs to go to the doctor or hospital.

It was a pilot program and we never got follow up funding. So we can only trust that we sent out 100 women with training.

You come back to the United States regularly to speak about your work and the Afghan people. With a new administration and the announced surge of troops, have you noticed any change this trip?

Ive been doing this for seven years and there was a long stretch when people would come for my talks, but no one was thinking about Afghanistan. My personal struggle was to get people to not forget about it. Now, weve gone from the forgotten war to the good war. I havent entirely absorbed that transition. Its unbelievable now the attention and focus. I keep telling people, this is fine and dandy, but the people of Afghanistan have been hearing this for years. We dont have any opinion until we see.

The Afghan people are very clear: they dont oppose U.S. troops coming. They say if they are coming, put them on the border, secure the border. They see the danger, not from Taliban, but from insurgents and terrorists coming across the border at Pakistan. They see a difference between the Afghan Taliban, who are from their own communities, and the Pakistani Taliban, who tend to have close ties with al-Qaeda. They clearly see their source of insecurity as coming from Pakistan.

Do you feel safe in Kabul?

You live your life. Obviously, the capital has gotten much more dangerous. I used to work in 12 provinces. Now I work in one. You have to fly everywhere. We tend not to leave the house before 10 in the morning because most suicide attacks occur before 10 a.m. I drive myself around, but I dont go to outlying areas in the city by myself at night. But we keep plugging along, we go to dinner with friends. We do our work.

Related Articles:

Pres. Obama, Send Afghans a Humanitarian Surge

Could Afghanistan be the Next Guantanamo?

Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Urges Seven Point Plan for Peace

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