What does AWWP hope to achieve?
We hope first and foremost to empower Afghan women to tell their own stories and truths. We’ve found that participation in the project also promotes greater economic independence for AWWP writers by strengthening computer literacy, writing skills and self-confidence. We also seek to encourage the inclusion of women’s voices in Afghanistan’s national dialogue, and to support the women in forming a community within Afghanistan, and becoming part of an international community beyond their own borders.
AWWP was founded in honor of Zarmeena, brutally executed by the Taliban in 1999 without ever being able to tell her own story. With the continuing dominance of the Taliban and a conservative mentality, Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman right now—in fact, a global survey in June 2011 called it the worst. A woman has limited rights and privileges, and in many cases, no voice. Yet the women we have come to know are strong, intelligent, and capable. We hope that by giving them a way to find their own voices, we can help them take control of their own lives and make the changes that feel right to them.
How many women has AWWP helped?
Since the project was founded in May 2009, over 90 Afghan women have participated in the AWWP mentorship program, honing their writing skills in English. We also have begun a Dari workshop. Additionally, we offer reading salons and writing workshops in Kabul and Heart in undisclosed locations. Because of security concerns, we have so far used word-of-mouth only to bring in additional writers.
Why English writing?
The project includes a Dari workshop; however, we have heard from many women that they want an opportunity to improve and deepen their ability to communicate in English, the international language of commerce and diplomacy. They know that by making it possible for many, many people in the world to read their work, they will be helping their sisters who have yet to find their voices. Many learned English while living in refugee camps, so this is not the language of the privileged in Afghanistan.
What are your future goals?
In the next year, we would like to begin an effort to collect oral stories from women who are illiterate or disabled, and who are some of the most vulnerable in a society where women are already often vulnerable. We also hope to promote the voices of AWWP writers through a quarterly radio program in Afghanistan.
How much does it cost to run your program in Afghanistan?
Thanks to our passionate and committed volunteer-based staff and mentorship program, we have been able to serve the Afghan women in our program for a very modest amount of money. While some things are very inexpensive in Afghanistan, others are inordinately costly—such as Internet access. It costs approximately $2,500 per woman per year to run AWWP for women through Afghanistan, including in Taliban-held areas. This includes bringing them laptops, providing Internet service and books, and holding special workshops.
Where has your funding come from so far?
The vast majority of our funding has come from small, individual donations through our website and at events we call Living Room Fundraisers.
Exactly what does your funding pay for?
Our funding pays for the Internet café in Kabul for our writers, which includes Internet access, computers, and supervision. Here the women hold reading salons and writing workshops. It also pays for laptops and Internet cards for our writers. It pays for monthly meetings for a group of AWWP writers in Herat. It pays for books for our writers and outreach through Afghanistan. Currently, we are paying monthly salaries to our Country Director in Afghanistan and three Afghan women who carry out the program work of the project. It also pays for our website and basic materials, including paper and printer ink. It pays for tea and refreshments for the women, some of whom walk hours to get there and share their work.
So you help Afghan women learn to write better and publish their essays and poetry. Then what?
Telling your own story is a basic human right. By giving Afghan women an opportunity and a forum, we’re opening a window onto their lives as well as helping them achieve a right they’ve been denied for decades. We have seen that this helps them in other aspects of their life, emboldening them to take charge and challenge the status quo. After participating in our program, one of our writers ran for parliament—and won. Others have become journalists or lawyers. One found the courage to refuse to marry the cousin her family had chosen for her, and instead married the man of her own choice. These role models are bravely breaking new ground for Afghan women.
“We support the women as they move forward to re-imagine their lives and revise what is possible,” AWWP Founder Masha Hamilton said. “I have personally seen several of our writers grow more determined and focused on their goals as a result of telling their stories as part of our project.”
But perhaps the true value of AWWP is best summed up by one of our participants, who sent us an unsolicited letter about what AWWP has meant to her:
I wonder how big the change in my destiny is because of your work and this project. Who would trust an online class, a writing project, to change a destiny and a faith? AWWP gave me the power to feel I am not only a woman; it gave me a title, an Afghan woman “writer.” I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed. I learned that if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand. –Roya