At a recent Georgetown University symposium, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush, and John Kerry all urged Americans not to abandon Afghan women after U.S. troops exit next year.
Their pleas were emotional. Bush, who, together with Clinton, has taken up the cause of Afghan women, said she feared that "once the troops leave, American eyes will move away. I want the people of Afghanistan to know the people of America are with them."
Secretary of State Kerry recalled the anxiety he has heard from Afghan women who have "legitimate concerns that the gains of the past decade could be lost."
"We have to be determined that they will not stand alone," he said firmly.
Admirable sentiments. But given public weariness with aid to Afghanistan, there's no guarantee that Congress - or other international donors - will keep funding projects for Afghan women after 2014.
Those who care about this issue - and no other Afghan topic has aroused more genuine concern among Americans than the situation of women - must look for other ways to support them. That means raising funds and donating to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work with women on the ground in Afghanistan.
I have some groups to suggest, including Aid Afghanistan for Education (www.aidafghanistanforeducation.org). It is headed by the dynamic Hassina Sherjan, who spoke last week at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Her organization runs 13 schools in nine provinces for older girls and women, including returning refugees who lost out on education during Afghanistan's years of turmoil and are not accepted in the regular school system.
But first a look at where things stand for Afghan girls and women now.
Under the Taliban, almost no Afghan girls were in official schools, but 2.4 million were supposedly studying by 2011. Over the last decade, U.S. aid money has flowed into schools and education, and in Afghan cities, women flock to universities. I have met brave Afghan women who run shelters for battered women, campaign for human rights, and serve in parliament, where male members mostly ignore them.
Yet the struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan - and education for girls and women - is still in its infancy. Female government officials have been murdered and kidnapped. Girls' education is under serious threat in southern and eastern provinces where the Taliban has made a comeback. There is a woeful shortage of female teachers. Skittish parents keep girls home when security is dicey, and female illiteracy is still sky high.
Last week, Kerry thought he had negotiated a bilateral security pact that would have kept a few thousand U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan after 2014 as trainers and enablers - and as symbols that the West won't forget the country. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai suddenly announced a delay in signing the agreement. Without that international presence, many Afghans fear a greater Taliban resurgence and an end to Western aid.
This uncertainty about the future of Western governmental support is why the work of NGOs is so essential, especially for Afghan women. Sherjan, who grew up in Afghanistan and came to America as a young refugee, is determined to keep her organization going, whatever happens. However, with the U.S. Agency for International Development shrinking or ending its grants, she has been unable in recent months to pay her 256 teachers.
Sherjan hopes that Congress will reconsider the need to aid NGOs such as hers during the coming transition period. In the meantime, she is trying to start a movement for peace through education, in which U.S. partners will help Afghan women whether or not U.S. troops all leave.
Having spent time as a writer-in-residence at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, and lectured at Lehigh University and other liberal arts colleges in the area, she has encouraged students to start clubs through which they will contact Afghan students by video conferencing. Hopefully, the U.S. students can raise grassroots interest and donations to help keep her schools afloat.
There are other NGOs with a record of helping Afghan women to whom one can donate. Among them are Women for Women International, Care International, Save the Children, the Central Asia Institute, Women for Afghan Women, Afzenda, and the Linda Norgrove Foundation.
Given the uncertainty about America's future role, those who care about Afghan women should look for innovative ways to help them, such as student exchanges, scholarships, or professional training. Sherjan, who traveled to Kabul in 1999 under the Taliban and set up five underground schools for girls, has chosen to take matters into her own hands again - through grassroots fund-raising. Americans moved by the sight of brave Afghan schoolgirls risking Taliban wrath should join her cause.