Getting out can be difficult due to a million different reasons. In Afghan society, women participating in outdoor sports are forbidden. That’s why we're extremely proud to partner up with Ascend - A non-profit organization working in Afghanistan to empower women through athletic based leadership. Meet our heroes.
It is probably the expedition of the decade. The purpose is not because it´s there or a summit picture, but to create role models through the outdoors. Soon the movie about Afghanistan first female mountaineering team will come to a screen near you.
The goal of Ascending Afghanistan is to develop a cadre of strong female role models who will motivate their society to peace. We took a chat with the founding director, Marina LeGree.
Marina LeGree is the founding director of Ascend and brings over a decade of experience working in Afghanistan and other unstable environments. She specializes in creating development strategies and managing programs in remote and insecure settings, having done so for the US Agency for International Development, GIZ, and the International Organization for Migration.
Marina is an outdoor enthusiast who is passionate about preserving nature and securing access to the outdoors for all people.
What is Ascend Marina?
We are a non-profit organization working with young women in Afghanistan. Last year we began the capstone activity of our pilot program: an all-female ascent of Afghanistan’s highest mountain. We have been training a group of 12 Afghan women in physical fitness and mountaineering skills since November 2014. Our focus is to create role models through sport and to invest in our athletes in order to help them spark positive change in their communities and their country.
Why Afghanistan and not somewhere safer?
Because the need is so great. Afghanistan is at a turning point. Conflict has reigned for decades, but progress toward peace and stability has great momentum. Millions of girls are in school now, after years of Taliban rule and conflict prohibited this. These girls and young women, educated and increasingly aware of their power, face a challenging future. They hold the potential to drive tremendous social change. Having worked on gender programming and development in Afghanistan for many years, we have witnessed the power of these women, and we believe in their capacity to change the narrative of conflict in this country to one of hope.
Tell us more about who the women are.
The team consists of eighteen young Afghan women, ranging in ages 15-23. They come from a variety of backgrounds, provinces and ethnicities. Several of the girls are college students, while most have had more limited educational opportunities. While all of them are here to gain sports ability, they all have different hobbies and talents of their own. For security purposes, we cannot share their names at this time.
How much of an impact will this have?
It is hard to know exactly, and even harder to measure. But we firmly believe in the power of extraordinary accomplishment to make a change. There are few positive role models for women in Afghanistan. Millions of girls in Afghanistan already hearing about the extraordinary accomplishments of the Ascend climbers. Women in Afghanistan face many hurdles. Persistence through hardship and challenge, as well as strength in the face of adversity, are characteristics that will help women in Afghanistan find their voices. We are firm in our belief that this will be a positive story of accomplishment to spark hope in other young women. No single program or story will make a change overnight, but it has to start somewhere. And change requires champions.
What are the challenges these women face?
Millions of Afghan women have seen their lives improve in the past decade, but the majority still face staggering challenges. Illiteracy rates are around 80% and even higher in rural areas. Violence against women continues at an alarming level. Young women growing up in constant conflict have few role models since women’s role in society is so severely restricted. Most girls who join our program have never done any sports or even spent a night away from home. Their families have a lot of concerns and sometimes they face pressure from relatives and neighbors to quit because climbing is too unusual for a girl. Our goal is to inspire Afghan women to break barriers and achieve their dreams, demonstrating through action what women are capable of when they work together for something positive. Mountain climbing is a way for women to discover their inherent strength and ability, and develop a self-confidence that extends to all areas of their lives.
Tell us more about leadership training.
This is the heart of the training program. It is designed to build resiliency and coping tools, not only for climbing but for what life brings afterward in this challenging and fractured society. All of these young athletes have known war their entire lives. Their normal existence has been one of conflict and violence. The training sessions have helped the women tell their own stories in the context of these wars. It has helped them face, in a supportive group setting, the trauma and hardships of their lives alongside others. Climbing requires teamwork that is uncommon in this land, where hard lives drive wedges between different elements of society. Afghanistan is a nation where leadership and cohesion are needed to bring people back together after the fighting is done.
What are your plans for next year? Will you do another expedition?
Yes! We will keep climbing newt year, with a series of training trips plus a couple of challenging expeditions for the more experienced members of the team. Every year we are improving the fundamental climbing skills and physical fitness of the whole team, and exploring new peaks around Afghanistan. We rely on skilled climbers to volunteer as instructors and leaders of our expeditions, so…come along!