Unfortunate news came via CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday night. Greg Mortensen, author of "Three Cups of Tea" and founder of the charity "Central Asia Institute" whose mission it is to build schools for girls (and boys) in Pakistan and Afghanistan in spite of threat by the Taliban, is having his James Frey moment (remember, Million Little Pieces, Oprah..). Only for Mr. Mortensen, things are worse. Much worse. Besides being found fabricating entire accounts of his memoir recounting his experiences with the kind people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who live under fear of the one of the worlds most violent and repressive regimes, the Taliban; the author has also been found to be using funds from his charity for his own use while vastly exaggerating the work of the charity being done on building schools in these blighted areas. Consequently, Mr. Mortensen, a mountaineer turned writer/lecturer, has sullied an issue so compelling, so completely distilling of the good vs. evil plight of central asians under Taliban rule, he may have permanently set back the cause he has championed. Mr. Frey embarrassed Oprah (admittedly, no minor transgression), while Mr. Mortensen may have stolen the future of a portion of the hundreds of thousands of children whose best ideation of their future is survival at best. Hardly more than a metaphor in common.
Mortensen with schoolchildren.
Its a raw deal to be born a girl on Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. First, with the world's highest infant mortality rate, 25% of children die before they reach school age. Then there's the school thing. Traditional schooling is replaced by madrassas for boys. In some countries, these seminary-like schools teach the Koran just as American Christian schools might teach the bible. But not these Taliban madrasses, they teach the Koran like the KKK teach the bible. And, likely for the better, women are not allowed.
What is worse, there are no alternatives other than home religious education for girls. For the Taliban, a girls education above the age of 8 is forbidden. And that is just the official version, as schools with younger students have been bombed, gassed or otherwise destroyed. In the 90's, when the Taliban held free reign over Afghanistan, it was decreed that woman would no longer work outside the home. As a result, nearly 7,800 women teachers were dismissed, leaving 148,000 boys and 106,000 girls without teachers.
Government troops inspect the completely demolished 21 room girls school, blown up by Taliban forces 25 miles west of Peshawar in 2009.
Since the fall of the Taliban government, the Taliban, in partial exile, mainly in the area of Waziristan and the Swat Valley in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, has enforced it's own interpretation of Sharia Law against those sinful enough to educate girls (or any children in a secular fashion). Their brave warriors have blown or otherwise demolished at least 185 schools (an estimated 130, girls only) and gassed others, and on at least one occasion in 2006 at a girls school in Lakshar Gar, armed gunmen walked through the gates, shooting and killing several young women, forcing another 900 private schools to remain closed under threat. Following one such bombing in Swat Valley in January of '09 a local lawyer, Shoukat Saleem, was quoted the British paper, The Independent, “Yesterday there was a bombing of a school in Mingora, the main city,” he added. “No one is giving any education. Girls preparing for their matriculation exams in March have had to abandon their education. Unless the government or the Taliban announce that the situation will be ok, no one will take the risk.”
Afghan schoolgirls suffering from suspected poisoning are taken to hospital in Kabul. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
The same Swat Valley lawyer is also credited with filming on his cel phone the flogging of a 17 year old girl and her fiance for allegedly being along in the boys house, a serious offense under the Taliban's Sharia Law. The video follows below. Please be advised, while grainy, it is nonetheless disturbing.
On the upside, this latest media meme has thrust the issue of the Taliban and human rights, especially in relation to young women, back into the spotlight for at least another 15 minutes of infamy. Let us hope, and give us momentum, that the situation becomes the better for it and that it doesn't merely flame brilliant and quick, leaving a generation in darkness.
The full segment, courtesy "60 Minutes":
For more on the Mortensen debacle see:
todays WSJ Blog.
todays LA Times.
The are still plenty of courageous people and organizations doing humanitarian work on behalf of the young women and children of Taliban-controlled Central Asia that need assistance and visibility. These laudable (and credible) charities include:
Help The Afghan Children is dedicated to improving the lives of children in Afghanistan through quality education and helping them become educated, healthy, productive citizens.
Green Village Schools is a Portland, Oregon, based non-profit organization committed to building a generation of hope in Afghanistan.
Women for Women International provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.