Fifteen young women and girls climb the side of a mountain so tall simply looking down could cause them to lose balance. Fearless and unhindered, they make way while chatting in Dari about school, friends, and their families. The sound of laughter carries over the valley. It sounds like a scene of school girls in Europe, the United States, or Canada, but it’s not. It’s Afghanistan.
Ten years ago, under Taliban reign, there would be no such scene or sounds of laughter in this valley. Despite this progress, some markers of conflict remain. Green flags dot the mountainside, marking fallen Afghan soldiers from the Soviet era up to this very year. Afghanistan is still very much a country under conflict, and its women and girls are still subject to harassment and inequality.
According to Amnesty International, Afghanistan ranks as the worst place to be born a woman. Insurgent violence, high levels of sexual abuse and domestic violence, forced and child marriage, and attacks on schoolgirls and working are just some of the dangers women in Afghanistan face on a daily basis.
But I’m not here to point out the challenges or talk about the problems facing women in Afghanistan today. I’m here to share with you some positive stories, and show you exactly why our work supporting these young women and girls is so important.
Freshta* and Fatima* are two young sisters from the provinces in Afghanistan. A year apart in age, but unsure of how old they actually are, these girls are quite a pair. When they first started showing up to run with us, they had only their school uniforms and slipper shoes, and yet still managed to beat everyone else on the starting line. On the wall inside their house hang 8 shiny medals, displaying their names and dates of various races they’ve won as Free to Run participants. These medals have become a source of pride for their family.
Those of us in the Western world know how enjoyable running can be. Before I moved to Afghanistan, I took the freedom I had to run for granted – I didn’t fully realize how lucky I was to be able to just lace up my shoes, step outside the door, and take off down the road or trail in whatever direction I chose. Afghan women, on the other hand, are prevented from doing this on a daily basis due to political instability, societal views and frequent attacks that make going for a run – or even a walk – a significant risk.
However, that doesn’t stop them – and us – from finding safe and creative ways to access the outdoors. Three years in, we are lucky enough to have the support of the local communities in which we operate, and the interest has grown exponentially! At first, there is always apprehension about something new… but once family members, community members and even the authorities see the benefits that come with women and girls being able to run, the comfort zone widens and participation increases. We have developed key partnerships with schools and community centers, which has allowed us to do some pretty neat things, including renovating and transforming a village house into a mountainside sports and environment center, and building Afghanistan’s first ice skating rink!
Our local support in Afghanistan is how we have grown from 10 regular participants in 2014, to 30 in 2015, to 70 in 2016, and over 100 to date in 2017. We are no longer just about running and leadership training, but other sports as well! Football, volleyball, skiing, muai thai, ice skating, and most recently rugby. We’ve grown to train 8 different teams in 3 different regions.
In an ethnically diverse and divided country like Afghanistan, we feel it is important to bring our teams together three times a year for sports weeks and expeditions. It’s amazing to watch our participants from different backgrounds become a cohesive group over the course of a week and several new sports experiences. There’s only so many times you can fall down learning how to ice skate and ski before you’re all laughing at yourselves and the ridiculousness of “skating on ice with a very thin blade”.
Through sports, these women and girls are able to form an unbreakable bond across provinces, ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. They are gaining confidence, strength, skills, and changing minds about who and what they should be in society, which is a powerful thing! Our programme is not just about sports – it is about a new way of life. And with your support, we are helping to ensure that everyone can be free to run.