Meet Razia Jan

Afghan born Razia Jan moved to Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1970, where she ran a small tailoring business, and served as President of the town’s Rotary Club. Following the September 11th attacks, she arranged to send 400 home made blankets to the Ground Zero rescue workers and went on to organise the sending of 30,000 pairs of shoes to Afghan children.

Razia then set up the Ray of Hope Foundation, raising money to build a school for girls in Afghanistan, and in 2008 moved back there to run the school.

Razia and the school have faced numerous difficulties and threats, the same day it opened another girls school in Kabul was attacked with hand grenades, killing 100 of the girls.

Before her school opened Razia was visited by four men who gave her ‘one last chance to change this school into a boys’ school, because the backbone of Afghanistan are our boys,’ to which she replied ‘Excuse me. The women are the eyesight of Afghanistan, and unfortunately you all are blind. And I really want to give you some sight.’

Winner of numerous Rotary Peace Prizes, and now nominated as a CNN Hero, Razia and her staff continue to provide education to girls in Afghanistan, hopeful of creating a more equal society and a better future – one girl at a time.


Photo from The Ray of Hope Foundation

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Half the Sky

March 8th is International Women’s Day – one of the aims of which is to highlight the discrimination and oppression that continues to affect millions of women worldwide. The three books below all powerfully describe the challenges faced by many women living in poverty around the globe.

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

There is a Chinese saying that ‘Women hold up half the sky’, but in many parts of the world women are treated as anything but equal to men – experiencing violence, abuse and exploitation. Half the Sky tells the stories of women across the developing world facing such challenges, but rather than being upsettingly depressing, it remains positive and upbeat, focusing on the advances and victories that have been obtained, and the often inspiring stories of the women who achieved them.

Sheryl WuDunn and her husband Nicholas Kristof had previously jointly won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting of the Tianamen Square protests, and has gone on to win numerous other awards since. They argue in their book that ‘the oppression of women worldwide is the paramount moral challenge of the present era’.

The Washington Post described Half the Sky as ‘one of the most important books we have ever reviewed – a call to arms that asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue’.

The Half the Sky Movement works to empower women and girls to fight poverty and extremism across the world. [Amazon]

The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz tells the remarkable story of how, after donating an old blue sweater to charity while at college in the US, she was amazed ten years later to see a young boy wearing her old sweater in Rwanda, where she was working as an aid worker. Stunned at how inter-connected the world is, she went on to write The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between the Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.

The Blue Sweater describes Jacqueline’s trial and error approaches to supporting African woman through micro-loans and other means in her early days in Kenya, efforts which were very often unsuccessful and not appreciated by those she was trying to help. Over time and with reflection Jacqueline and her colleagues realised that more than just access to capital was needed if they were to transform the lives of the women they were seeking to help – women who have always been excluded from financial affairs, and must also find time in their day to struggle to care for their children, provide food and clean water and obtain basic health care, often with little support from men.

Jacqueline has gone on to found the Acumen Fund, which aims to use entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problem of global poverty. [Amazon]

Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland

As a small child in a village in Sierra Leone, Mariatu Kamara lived a peaceful life with her family and friends. One day during the civil war, the rebel soldiers came, many themselves children, and 12 year old Mariatu was captured and attacked. Having killed most of her family and friends, the soldiers decided to release Mariatu, but not before cutting off both her hands. Later, a she hid in the jungle she was faced with the challenge of how to feed herself and considered simply giving up, but she was determined to survive and finally managed to take a bite of the mango, she’d been given, holding it between her forarms.

The book tells of Mariatu’s experiences after the attack, and the difficulties she needed to overcome to adjust to life without her family or the use of her hands – including time spent in refugee camps, and begging on the streets of Freetown. Eventually she was able to secure a new life in Canada.

In recent years Mariatu has been named UNICEF Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, and has set-up the Mariatu Foundation to provide a much needed refuge for women and children in Sierra Leone. [Amazon]


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Photo by Afghanistan Matters, via Flickr