Alliance founded by Edmonds resident helps empower Afghan women, girls

Lisa Herb

Edmonds resident Lisa Herb has made it her mission to advocate for the equitable treatment of women on a global scale.

In 2005, Herb founded the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR), and serves as its director. AIWR supports current and future women leaders in developing countries, with a current focus on Afghanistan. AIWR creates connections between Afghan women and skilled professionals through long-distance empowerment programs like English as a Second Language (ESL), and by mentoring legal practitioners.

The inspiration for AIWR began when Herb, a Seattle-based attorney, traveled with her husband, a wildlife biologist, to Mongolia in 2003. Looking for ways to stay busy while her husband worked, she decided to volunteer with women’s rights organizations and discovered she had a true passion for it. She helped women write emails, acted as a language liaison and assisted a women’s rights organization in researching domestic violence legislation.

Returning to the U.S. a year later, Herb wanted to continue her volunteer work in international women’s rights, but had trouble finding a group that was the right fit.

“I couldn’t find any organizations that provided long distance support to international women’s rights, so I decided to create my own – and that’s how AIWR got started.” Herb said.

Of the ESL program, which is aimed at empowering girls 15 years and older, Herb says, “A goal a young woman may have is to get into university — because so many courses are taught in English they need to pass an English language exam and we can help them do that.”

Many ESL students hope to find employment in international organizations, since those entities tend to offer employment to women — something they cannot find in Afghanistan.

“We meet with our students two times a week via Skype and provide whatever lessons they may need to accomplish their goals,” Herb said. “Some students are dreaming about studying abroad and need to take the Test of English as a Foregin Language (TOEFL). Being able to speak English gives them a leg up for lucrative employment in whatever they chose to do.”

Because bigger cities in Afghanistan — such as Kabul, Herat and Kandahar — have modern infrastructures for internet and computer technology, most of the women and girls who work with AIWR live in those cities because they can access computers and Skype.

In the mentor program, mentees are matched with an attorney counterpart in North America who will help them develop mastery in international law, women’s rights and understanding complex English legal text, Herb said.

“Because the mentees in our mentoring program are professional working women as we are — we only meet with them once a week.”  Herb explained. “Our mentees are primarily in the legal profession; since I’m an attorney I was more focused on that when I started AIWR. We work with attorneys, judges, law professors and people who provide support roles for those professions.”

Now that Afghanistan is in peace talks with the Taliban, there is growing concern among working Afghan women that the country may return to policies in place before 2001, when women had less control over how they lived their lives in all areas — but mostly in education.

“Afghanistan is one of the hardest places to be as a woman and since 2001 has been advancing steadily with many women and girls going back in school and making great strides,” Herb said. “Despite all of the challenges they’ve gone through, the women and girls we’ve worked with have been some of the most determined, strongest, fiercest people I’ve ever known. They are not victims; they are strong, really strong.”

Herb is the first to admit that she could not do this work alone. “The other women who help me and volunteer are amazing, and work incredibly hard,” she said. “It’s truly a team effort, there’s no one person doing it all.” The AIWR team — located both in the Seattle area and across the U.S. — consists of Laura Waters, Anne Damiecka, Gayle Zilber, Nancy Arnold-Hunting, and Scarlett Chidgey.

A key to AIWR’s success, Herb said, is that it’s all-volunteer — the group remains sustainable while many similar groups come and go based on whether they receive funding. Although AIWR has also done work in Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Nepal, Herb said, “the need was just so great in Afghanistan we ended up focusing there but we may also return to a broader geographic focus in the next few years.”

AIWR’s mentors have supported the careers of dozens of Afghan women professionals who have gone on to make significant positive changes that have impacted voting rights, domestic violence laws, increasing penalities for rape and been elected to positions of authority.

Herb sees a bright future for AIWR, adding: “We plan on being around for as long as we are needed.”

If you are a qualified ESL instructor, or an attorney, and would like to volunteer for AIWR, contact aiwr.org/volunteer for more information.

You can also support The Secret Marathon, a March 3 solidarity run with women and girls in Afghanistan. You can enter the 3K run/walk event by registering with team AIWR at thesecretmarathon.com/secret3k.

— By Misha Carter

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