Giving Afghan women a global voice
Amie Ferris-Rotman is changing how the world views Afghanistan
“There were plenty of female journalists in Afghanistan. They were working for local news channels in their local languages, but the world was not getting their stories. I found this ridiculous.” — Amie Ferris-Rotman
From 2011 to 2013, at the height of the Afghanistan surge, Amie Ferris-Rotman worked in Kabul as a senior correspondent for Reuters. Her focus was primarily women’s rights stories, and she interviewed dozens of Afghan women all across the country for stories read by tens of millions of people worldwide. But while she was there she noticed a curious thing: there were no Afghan women there working for any of the foreign media for an international audience.
It’s something that I was just staggered by.
Outside of a mere equality lens, this lack of female reporting had real repercussions for the stories being told.
In Afghanistan, the genders are strictly divided and most men cannot speak to most women. This means that Afghan men cannot go into a village, or a home in Kabul, or a hospital and speak to the women freely. They simply cannot do that, which means the women’s stories don’t always come out. You need those Afghan women to be able to speak to other Afghan women and to report on the stories which are extremely important.
And it’s not like there are a lack of female journalists in the country. The Ministry of Information recently reported that there are 2,500 female journalists (compared to 9,500 males).
Having identified a problem with a seemingly clear solution, Amie tried to remedy this by getting outlets to hire them, but she was met with fierce opposition by local men.
Women aren’t treated well in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter if you’re an educated journalist or you’re an illiterate housewife, it’s just across the board.
This was beyond frustrating to Amie, but she carried on with her reporting duties. But her annoyance over the lack of female Afghan voices in the international narrative wasn’t going anywhere.
While still in Kabul, Amie applied for a journalism fellowship program at Stanford focused on innovation. As part of the application process, she had to come up with a project designed to improve the state of journalism around the world. She thought about her recent experiences.
I had this idea. I knew I wanted to put Afghan women in foreign news rooms or get them printed by foreign media outlets. I just didn’t know how to get there.
Amie got in to the programs and she was soon on a plane to Palo Alto, where she’d spend the next year developing her plan to change international journalism.
Amie left Stanford in August 2014 on a ridiculous high, thinking that funding for her project, now called Sahar Speaks, which would provide training, mentoring and publishing opportunities for Afghan female reporters, would be easy to come by. But she was soon met by the reality of the situation.
It was almost impossible to get funding because there was Afghanistan fatigue, people were like, “Afghanistan, really? We are done with that. It was a failure, it didn’t work.” That’s seriously what donors told me. Also, because I was new to the space, no one trusted me. I applied everywhere and I got rejected by everyone: the US State Department, the British Government, major grant-giving organizations, everyone.
Amie had quit her job at Reuters so she could fully focus on raising money for Sahar Speaks. It had become an obsession for her. But she kept on hitting roadblocks. Places told her they were going to fund her, then backed out at the last minute and decided to allocate the money elsewhere.
I would get really down and be like, “Oh my God this just seems impossible. I was going to every event in London trying to speak to people who had money. I was putting myself out there and getting nothing back and it was just so exhausting. I would then read stories about Afghanistan, about the women and just be like, “I have to continue with this.” I would kind of say, “Okay, give yourself 6 months more and see if you can make it happen.” I don’t know, there was something in me that refused to totally give up.
That perseverance paid off, after over a year of hits and misses when she got $20,000 in seed funding from a small British foundation in November 2015.
Amie had dreamt of what she would do with the money for so long that once she had it she was able to get the project moving immediately. Using her news contacts, social media, and leveraging word of mouth that is so popular in Afghanistan, she put out a call for applications. Thirty six Afghan women applied, and soon it would be whittled down to 12. It was November. Training would happen in March.
Winter went fast as planning went into a frenzy. Soon Amie was in Kabul with a team of trainers for six days of training. There was pitching, story structure, focused photography, even sexual harassment training, which none of the women had ever had before. And even though they were all working as journalists, they responded to even the most basic of trainings very well.
They were full of enthusiasm. They loved it. It was such a joy and just such a shock for me. I realized I spent more time with Afghan women in those six days than I did in the whole two years I lived there.
Amie was moved by just how, for the lack of better word, normal they all were. They could have been young women from anywhere in the west.
I was worried about security and secrecy and they just wanted to keep Tweeting where we were. Then they would Instagram and put hashtag secret place because they thought I was nuts. They were so witty and funny.
She’s also quick to mention that obviously it wasn’t all smiles, and that they were keenly aware of their situation
They are strong women in this kind of really dangerous and also very very patriarchal society. It’s very difficult to try to convey how difficult it is for them. Even walking down the street for them is a hassle. They are constantly harassed. For them to have this humor is just wonderful in a way.
But the training itself paid immediate dividends, both for the participants and the project itself. In the weeks after the training, The New York Times expressed interest in bringing on a local Afghan woman for assignments. Zahra Nader, one of the journalists from the program, caught their eye and they brought her on for a week-long trial, which she excelled at. They then brought her on for a three month trial, and she again excelled. So they hired her, and she is regularly bylined on the front page.
So this means that Sahar Speaks, in its pilot program, got a local Afghan woman hired by one of the largest and most-respected outlets on earth. Just imagine what they can do in the future, with more experience and resources?
Amie has just received another grant, this one from a new foundation, which will fund the second round of training. This training, which will happen this winter, will focus on visual storytelling. They’re also going to be bringing women in from the provinces this time.
We want to diversify the voices and get some women from the different areas. They’ll be taught how to shoot and edit 2 minute videos on smart phones, which they all have.
And while they have the minimum amount of money for this next training, every little bit helps. To this end, Amie has set up an online fundraising page on CrowdRise so that anyone who wants to can help.
Not a single Afghan woman works for the international press in Kabul. We’re seeking to change that.www.crowdrise.com
As part of round 2, Amie wants to place women in internships at global publications that Sahar Speaks will fund. One month for one woman is $500. Imagine what your money can be a part of?
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