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Fighting for the women of Afghanistan

American Shannon Galpin is fighting a very different war in the dangerous region, hoping to change the lives of women and those who need the most help.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

The warmth of spring unfreezes ice-blocked trails on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan— for centuries stamped into mountain passes by warriors, armies and empires.

The war is entering a new and dangerous phase. The Taliban are creeping back into Afghanistan’s heartland, many from Pakistan, bringing with them their brutal old ways: blowing up schools, cutting the ears of teachers and abusing women.

Shannon Galpin: The Taliban can literally come in and crush any hope of opportunity and any hope of a real sustainable life.

American Shannon Galpin is waging a private and personal battle for the soul of Afghanistan. She believes the war can be won on another front — with education and women.

Galpin: If you educate a woman, that will change lives. The military is not going to change the community long term, education can change the community long term.

Shannon is part of the ripple effect of the man who inspired her, Greg Mortenson, who has been building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan for 15 years.

He co-wrote a best-seller, called "Three Cups of Tea," about how his work has changed remote village communities. The book changed Shannon’s life.

Galpin: It was the moment that I realized that here was one person that had no skill set in this particular area. He was not philanthropist, he was not a school builder, he’s not a construction worker… and I totally resonated with sleep in the back of your car, go sell your things, and go build a school.

So in 2007 Shannon, a 34-year-old sports trainer and competitive mountain-biker from Breckenridge, CO, launched her own non-profit called “Mountain to Mountain” to support Mortenson. She raised over $100,000 to build two schools in Pakistan and funded development projects in Nepal.

Then, late last year, Shannon, a single mother, was driven to visit Afghanistan on her own and was shocked by the images she saw and stories she heard.

Mothers begging in the streets with their babies... children hooked on heroin and opium, people beyond desperation.

Galpin: There’s 14 percent of Afghan women that are educated in this country. 14 percent. That kind of blew my mind and they then are in a form of enslavement.

Just recently Shannon returned to Afghanistan for three weeks—again by herself—with an innovative idea. She would not only try to build schools for those with little chance of getting education. She would try to bring teachers and classrooms to those with no chance.

Braving Afghanistan’s most dangerous alleys and booby-trapped roads—routes seldom travelled by westerners without heavy security—Shannon rode on the back of a dirt bike in search of Afghanistan’s most needy.

First stop—a private drug rehab center for women. Here, Shannon met Fahima, just 18 years old, a mother of three, trying to break her opium addiction.

Fahima’s boss at a carpet weaving business forced her to take the drug to make her work harder, she tells Shannon, and she got hooked.

Galpin: They are just being told “This will help you stay awake. This will help you be more productive.”

Many of the women at this facility have children and though they get onsite daycare while their mothers undergo detox treatment, these little ones are some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable.

Galpin: If the women who are falling through the cracks… the knock on) effect will just mean that the children grow up heroin addicts. the children will still stay on the streets and beg. There won’t be any change to their lives.

Shannon’s next stops were at prisons, where the women inmates told her wretched stories of injustice.

Galpin: We’ve seen women that are in jail for being raped. One of the women in particular was raped by a family member while her husband was away working in Iran.

Shannon says once the story got out the woman, 18-year-old Maimama was accused of adultery and of bringing dishonor on her family. She was convicted in a local court and sentenced to three years in prison.

Galpin: How can a woman who was raped, with a ten-month-old baby, be sent to prison and the brother-in-law, the rapist goes free? Simply because there’s no justice.

And the injustice doesn’t end there, says Shannon.

Galpin: She’s now been disowned from her family. So she has nowhere to go, and her husband has said when she gets out he will kill her.

Shannon made a third stop to Afghanistan’s most helpless to listen to the plight of deaf children.

Galpin: There’s 10,000 deaf children in Afghanistan. These kids are just, again, falling through the cracks. They have no contact with the rest of the world because no one knows how to communicate with them. Often they’re shunned by society, and often they’re treated as though they’re stupid. And they’re not. They simply can’t hear.

Shannon decided then and there to help, convincing a local landowner to donate nearly 2 acres of land—the site of a new school for the deaf. And she has arranged with prison authorities and the drug rehab facility to bring teachers to the women there.

She may be just getting started, but her course is unwavering in spite of the danger. Two weeks ago, a car she was in was stopped on the road by Taliban, her driver beaten.

Ann Curry: There are many places in the world where things aren’t fair.

Galpin: Yes.

Curry: Why Afghanistan?

Galpin: For me personally, just because of the oppression.

Curry: But why are you willing to take the risks that you take to do this work?

Galpin: The best answer is just because I have to. And because if I don’t, who will?

Curry: It’s not a good enough answer.

Galpin: (laughter) Okay.

Curry: A lot of people want to change the world, but not everybody is gonna take a risk, and risk as you say, the possibility of saying to your four-year-old daughter, “good-bye,” for the last time.

Galpin: Well, I was very lucky in that. Is this gonna be a Barbara Walters moment?

Curry: No. It is not.

Galpin: (laughter) okay.

Curry: But if you’re saying that we have to be transformed—then we have to be honest about what transformed you.

Galpin: The positive is I had a very strong family. I can remember from a very young age, I would have Post-it notes before I went to school. just that you can change the world.

But there is a painful admission Shannon rarely shares, which became a more powerful motivation for her cause.

Galpin: I moved out when I was 17 and moved to the city. And while I was there I was attacked and raped. I was the victim. In Afghanistan, if a woman is raped, she is often put in jail. She not viewed as a victim. She’s viewed as someone who needs to be punished.

Curry: You’re saying you know what it’s like to have been made to feel helpless by a man.

Galpin: (Affirms) Definitely.

Curry: And so you can’t bear to see another woman routinely, without justice—

Galpin: I think that’s exactly it. Without justice. There is no justice for women and young girls. There’s no one advocating for these women.

Shannon says she will—for as long as she can.

Galpin: I will be on my death bed wanting to be involved.

Curry: And what is it you wanna see?

Galpin: I would like to see that if it’s by the time I die, which God-willing is many, many decades from now, that the women of Afghanistan have the same rights that my daughter does. That would be ideal. And that my daughter understands the opportunities she has.

Curry: Yeah. So no one has to feel powerless and afraid?

Galpin: Yes. You can control your own destiny.