Empowering Women in the War Zone

Four female members from University of Maryland Extension travel to Afghanistan for project centered on family food security

Amanda Rockler, Christie Balch, Becky Ramsing and Stephanie Grutzmacher traveled to Kabul to teach women about nutrition and gardening.

Image Credit: Amanda Rockler

August 14, 2012

Volatile and war-torn Afghanistan, where security issues continue to pose a serious threat, is probably not high on many people’s lists of tourist destinations. But when four female members with University of Maryland Extension (UME) heard about a project proposal designed to empower women in this troubled region, they didn’t hesitate. “It just seemed like one of those things you should say yes to… even though a lot of people probably think you’re nuts,” said Stephanie Grutzmacher, a UME faculty research associate and extension family health specialist.

The proposal was developed by Jim Hanson, an extension specialist with Maryland’s Agricultural and Resources Economics (AREC) Department. Maryland’s $1.3 million project is part of a larger program being funded by a $14 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) intended to improve the capacity of extension services throughout Afghanistan. Three other universities are also doing work in the country through this grant including Washington State University, Purdue University and the University of California-Davis, which is leading the program.

Women Serving Women

Hanson’s project aims to specifically serve vulnerable women—those who have been abandoned, divorced or widowed—living in the poorest sections of Kabul. The goal is to increase access to healthy food, improve the quantity and quality of healthy food, and to increase the income from the sale of home-grown food. While his intent was for the project to be entirely managed by women, Hanson knew the safety concerns in Afghanistan might make assembling a team a challenge. “I wasn’t actively recruiting people for this,” he said. “Anyone who expressed an interest, I told them to think about it for a while and then get back to me.”

It wouldn’t take long though for word to get around about Hanson’s proposal and to generate interest. Becky Ramsing, a faculty extension assistant and nutrition, health and wellness educator in Howard County, was the first to sign up and traveled with Hanson to Afghanistan in March to lay the groundwork for the project. Soon after, Grutzmacher—along with Christie Balch, coordinator at UMD’s Center for Educational Partnership, and Amanda Rockler, a watershed restoration extension specialist—joined Ramsing to form the Family Food Security Team. “The opportunity to see how other countries are doing urban agriculture and working with women and education and empowering and inspiring women is interesting to me, especially in an area that gets so much bad press.” Rockler said.

Teaching the Teachers

The foursome traveled with Hanson to Kabul in July to put on a three-day workshop for a group of their Afghan counterparts—15 female extension agents employed through the Ministry of Agriculture. Their goal was to equip the Afghan educators with more dynamic, hands-on techniques, such as demonstrations and simulations they could then take back to the villages they serve and teach other women how to support their families by growing their own food.  Grutzmacher and Ramsing focused on a nutrition component while Balch and Rockler concentrated on backyard gardening. “They already knew much of the material but didn’t know how to teach it in an interactive way,” explained Balch. “The majority of their teaching involved just basically lecturing.”

Upon arriving in Afghanistan, all four of the women had reservations about how their lessons would be received. “We were worried going in that everyone was just going to stare at us and no one was going to talk,” said Rockler.

However, the group was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm their audience showed right from the beginning, establishing an easy camaraderie among the two nationalities. At the end of the workshop, the Afghan women took on the role of presenters and were asked to demonstrate to the Americans what they had learned. “They rocked it,” Balch said. “They totally got it. Their lessons were fun and engaging.”

Finding Common Ground

The two groups of women enjoyed discussing their stark cultural differences but also bonded over many similarities. “Schooling-wise we’ve all sort of gotten to this extension position in a similar way,” said Rockler. “Their extension is set up very similar to how ours is.”

While oppression against women remains rampant in Afghanistan, the American team was encouraged to see that a portion of the female population, particularly in Kabul, is well-educated, employed and motivated. “They are really at the mercy of their family and how tolerant their family is of learning new things,” Ramsing explained. “They have a desire to do things well if they can and to make their country better.”

Hanson actually left Kabul during the workshop to travel to another province so that the exercises would be entirely female-dominated. “I wanted it to be women working with women,” he said.

Each of the American women wore the traditional head scarves during their time in Afghanistan, some studying YouTube videos beforehand to learn the technique for tying them correctly—a gesture their Afghan friends noticed and appreciated. “I liked wearing it,” Balch said. “I didn’t have to do my hair.”

Hanging on to Hope

The team stayed at a house in Kabul rented by the Chief of Party–the person who oversees the program being funded by the USDA—and found little pockets of time to explore the city. The Americans did not travel with armed guards but were careful not to draw attention themselves. While they were encouraged by the hopefulness portrayed by the Afghan women with whom they interacted, it was impossible to ignore the scars of war evident everywhere—on the buildings, the infrastructure, and the landscape—and the daunting battle to rebuild that lies ahead. “I wasn’t shocked by what I saw but I was very uncomfortable,” Grutzmacher recalls. “I mean it was almost unlivable.”

Despite the widespread devastation, the American women hung on to signs of hope cropping up in unexpected places. For instance, in the shadow of Darluman Palace—a massive building that once housed kings but is now a bombed-out shell—Afghan President Hamid Karzai has delegated 100 acres of land specifically for women to grow fruits and vegetables. The farmland was originally supposed to provide 80 women with half-acre plots each but problems with water sources has made it difficult to get the project to full-capacity. 

As for the future of their project, Maryland’s Family Food Security Team is cautiously optimistic about the impact it can have on the lives of Afghan women. “The people that we are working with are great. It was really good building relationships so I think we can definitely make differences there,” Ramsing said. “Then there’s the other side - not knowing where things will go and realizing the future there is still quite bleak.”

Money from Maryland’s grant will pay for a full-time person to live in Kabul to oversee the project and help its progress. Program leaders are in the process of hiring an American woman for that position. Also, each member of the team from Maryland has plans to travel back to the region once or twice over the next year to develop more strategies for helping women in Afghanistan take control of their own futures. “This project really energized me,” said Balch. “It can be done. I feel very hopeful it can be done.”

For more information, contact Sara Gavin at 301-405-9235 or sgavin@umd.edu.