Zainab Salbi grew up in Iraq. She was only 11 years old when her father was chosen to serve as Saddam Hussein's personal pilot. At 20, she was sent to the U.S. for an arranged marriage. Stranded by the Gulf war, she escaped the marriage and started her life over.
That new start was the founding of Women for Women International (WWI) in 1993. Today it is the leading organization providing aid to women in war-torn countries, including Afghanistan. Salbi was named by Newsweek as one of the 100 extraordinary women who shake the world, and she is now a member of the UN Secretary General's Civil Society Advisory Group. She is the also the best-selling author of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing up in Shadow of Saddam.
I recently interviewed Zainab Salbi for my radio show, Equal Time with Martha Burk. High on the list was the fate of women in Afghanistan in light of the 2013 early pullout announced by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
MB: What do the women in Afghanistan need?
ZS: One thing they really need is access to credit. Last year I was in Afghanistan and I met a woman who was promised at the age of 6, married at 15, and a widowed mother at 16. She was beaten by the Taliban for wearing a sandal, and when she joined WWI she had nothing. After training she started a business, and now has $30 thousand in the bank and employs 150 people.
MB: You said 3 years ago in the Huffington Post that the last of hope evaporating for the women of Afghanistan. It sure seems like you were right. The New York Times recently published what it termed an urgent to-do list for Afghanistan. The list did not include women, except to say the Taliban must accept the constitution, including the rights of women, and President Obama didn't mention women in his speech announcing the early troop withdrawal.
ZS: Yes, as I was talking with this woman I felt a sense of betrayal. In 2001 America went to Afghanistan for many reasons, including -- in a primary way -- helping Afghan women. Except for Secretary Clinton, who has really been persistent and consistent in advocating for women's issues, there is an attitude among the rest of the American government, and internationally, that it is irreconcilable to protect women's rights in Afghanistan and also have peace there. So there is a sense of abandonment right now. One of Karzai's advisors told me "Women will have to compromise if we make peace with the Taliban. But don't worry, the compromise will just be mobility and physical appearance."
MB: It is ridiculous to call that a compromise. And the Afghan government is not enforcing the law now, regardless of the Taliban. The Afghan anti-violence against women law passed in 2010. Since then there have been over 2200 complaints. Only 7% have been prosecuted, and we don't know if even those have resulted in convictions.
ZS: Yes. What we must realize is that protecting women's rights, and protecting women from violence is not an isolated issue from the larger violence that is happening in the country. Violence simply starts with women but never stops with them. Afghan women tell me that when the Taliban came, first it was the women, then they moved to the elders and the children, then the men, and finally it impacted - I would say changed -- the world with the destruction of the twin towers. So it's all interconnected.
MB: The U.S. is pouring a lot of money into Afghanistan. Would the threat of withdrawing money help at all?
ZS: It's not how much money we're spending, it's where we're spending it. In my opinion the way to build peace and stability in any country is investments that clearly impact people's lives. It's the creation of jobs, roads, electricity, running water. Improving a feeling of stability. We could spend a quarter of what we're spending now, and if we spent it on areas that improve people's lives directly, and less on other issues, I assure you there will be a much better chance of building peace Afghans welcoming and loving America's contribution.
MB: Do you think the Karzai government is as corrupt as many others believe in siphoning off some of that money?
ZS: I would say yes, though I am not an expert on the issue. But I would also say when there is corruption one would have to question if it is both sides of the story. If we target the money in investing in women and investing in jobs where women spend almost 100% on their families, whereas men spend only 40%, it would reduce the opportunity for corruption .
MB: How can women in this country help other women like those in Afghanistan and women of the Arab Spring.
ZS: You can go to womenforwomen.org and give a gift, or sponsor a woman for $30 a month. Mother's Day is coming up, and the best gift you can give is one that gives back, that supports another woman and helps rebuild her life.