I grew up in a small town, where everyone knew everyone and women were definitely “in the home” except when they were in sanctioned activities like cooking for baked bean suppers at the Grange Hall or teaching sewing at 4-H meetings. My father was cursed with four daughters – forced to adapt to having no sons to carry his name, toss a baseball or go fishing. His response was to buy baseball mitts and fishing poles anyway. By the time we were adults, my sisters and I had fuzzed the social difference between boys and girls so badly that we didn’t understand that we were supposed to screech at the sight of a wriggling worm and aspire to dusting trinkets in ruffled aprons. We’re obviously different from each other, the four of us, but one thing is very clear and a source of some irritation for my father. We are all “too independent for girls”.
We’ve all subsequently complained about the male-dominated world we still live in. But our universal answer has been to change the playing field by starting a company, a studio, a mental health practice and two non-profit organizations. We know how lucky we are that my father cared much more about fishing partners than coming out parties. We also know that we are lucky to live in a place where women have been deemed to be equal to men, at least officially. Even if the social environment is not always supportive of women as equals, the law provides the foundation on which we can strive to succeed.
The other night my husband and I attended a first-time screening at the Mill Valley (California) Film Festival. What better way to forget about The Terminator-turned-governor than go to the movies? The movie was “Afghanistan Unveiled”, a documentary by and about Afghan women. This is a serious and sad story by and about the women in Afghanistan who have been devastated by the Taliban era and then virtually forgotten since the U.S. invasion. The audience cried with the interviewers as they talked to Hazaras women living in caves with no food except lentils, no money, no fuel, and almost no water. The victims of the Taliban’s ethnic cleansing, all their male relatives except the youngest boys had been murdered, often in front of them. Security is not good enough to begin to build small businesses, though the women said if they could be given looms they could support themselves and their families, which often included many adopted orphans. In another part of the movie, a woman risked her life to tell about running away from a forced marriage; “honor” killing is rampant in this country.
For several years, Shelley Alpern has led an effort by Trillium Asset Management to find ways for socially responsible investors to have a positive impact on abused women throughout the world. Afghanistan has been a special case because of the courting of Taliban by Unocal and the extreme and overt abuse of women by that regime. Under intense pressure, Unocal and other U.S. companies eventually stopped dealing with the Taliban. After the attack on the World Trade Center, the United States threw them out of power, but not out of the country. The problems for women, especially away from the cities, have often been exacerbated. The United States has failed to deliver promised aid, so horrible poverty combines with a devastated economy and a nonexistent infrastructure to render their lives hopeless.
There are few ways investors can directly impact the fate of these women except by donating money to the relief organizations who are trying to help. In the future, Afghanistan would be a perfect place for micro-lending to women like Accion International does in Central and South America or Grameen Bank does in Bangladesh, but now there is no security for aid workers in this country. We are, however, entering the time of year when many people think about gifting either cash or appreciated stock. Some of the non-profits in Afghanistan include the Asia Foundation, which produced the film “Afghanistan Unveiled” with The Afghan Media and Culture Center, the U.S. Department of State and USAID. The Asia Foundation is trying to rebuild a large girls’ school in Kabul. National Geographic has established a fund to assist Afghan women and girls unable to attend school under the Taliban. There are those working on the issue of self-sufficiency in food, such as the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas.
It was good for me to see this movie at the same time that California elected an “action hero” and Mr. Universe as governor. It put things in perspective.