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Educated Afghan women offer economic resilience in the face of climate change and conflict

Drought is drying up farms across Afghanistan, cracking the earth and threatening the only way of life the majority has ever known. It's in the fields where a new war is being waged between two forces the people can't control: climate change and terrorism. But, as special correspondent Beth Murphy of The GroundTruth Projects reports, some are seeing greater reason to let their daughters be educated.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The NewsHour has covered conflict in Afghanistan for many years, but there is another crisis creating nearly as many problems, climate change.

    It has led to epic droughts and has forced already desperate Afghan people toward desperate measures.

    One surprising factor in helping stave off the after-effects of drought, education for girls.

    Special correspondent Beth Murphy of the nonprofit GroundTruth Reporting Project has covered those efforts to improve girls education for years, and tonight looks at the difference between — that teaching girls is making.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    Drought is drying up farms across Afghanistan, cracking the earth and threatening the only way of life the majority of the country has ever known.

    This community outside Kabul city is called Green Village. It was once the breadbasket of the region, but today the name rings hollow.

  • HAFFIZULLAH AZAMI (through interpreter):

    The drought is upon us, beyond our control. We cannot do anything about it. Our crops are becoming smaller every year. Maybe, this year, there will be more drought because there hasn't been any rain. Our river is dry.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    Farmers like Haffizullah Azami have been hit again and again over the past three decades with droughts. They have become longer and more intense, making Afghanistan one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change.

    Haffizullah's daughter Wazeela remembers all the times her dad struggled to make money and feed the family.

  • WAZEELA, Teacher (through interpreter):

    When my father came home, he was very unhappy. So that made us all unhappy. He didn't have enough money to cover our expenses. And when we didn't have enough food to eat, he was really miserable.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    Haffizullah's grape field may not look like a battlefield, but this is where a new war in Afghanistan is being waged, with farmers caught between two forces they can't control, climate change and terrorism.

  • DAUD RAHIMI:

    So this is the negotiation with the community people.

    Daud Rahimi is with the United Nations Development Program. He's helping to oversee a $71 million program to protect Afghanistan's most vulnerable communities from the worst impacts of climate change.

  • DAUD RAHIMI:

    Climate change is a multiplier, a threat multiplier, one of which is the recruitment of young people by insurgent groups.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    That insurgency is bankrolled by the drug trade, specifically opium poppy, which is heavily controlled by violent Taliban extremists, who are now openly operating in 70 percent of the country, reversing the gains of America's longest war.

    In this Taliban-controlled area on the Pakistan border, farmers are spreading the seeds of what will become heroin.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    We have very little land and big families. So we are cultivating opium poppy. It brings in more income. Our goal with growing poppy is to earn more money. We don't want to harm anyone.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    There's a reason farmers are attracted to growing opium poppy. Haffizullah considered it because it's more drought-resistant than other crops. There's also more of a market for it.

  • HAFFIZULLAH AZAMI (through interpreter):

    I have never cultivated it, but everyone knows it's the way to make a good income.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    Opium is a $60 billion industry in Afghanistan, which supplies most of the world's heroin. The amount grown here is skyrocketing. It's almost doubled over the past year, despite a mounting U.S. campaign to target the illicit crop and the Taliban.

    According to the United Nations, it's impossible to untangle the web of drugs, drought and war, and those with the least power suffer most.

  • DAUD RAHIMI:

    Girls and minorities, they are affected more than anyone else on the climate change.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    For one family in Herat province, not having enough water set off a devastating chain reaction.

  • SHAH MOHAMMADI (through interpreter):

    It was the reason I became indebted and lost everything, because of the drought.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    To settle his debts, Shah Mohammadi took his daughter Khudihja out of school. Instead of her getting a diploma, he was paid a dowry when he forced her to get married. Late last year, she tried to find her own way out. She attempted suicide by setting herself on fire.

  • KHUDIHJA (through interpreter):

    It's all because of my husband. He physically and mentally abused me. Without my knowledge, they married me to that man. When Afghan people are broke, they sell their daughters. I'm not dead. I'm not alive.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    It's impossible to know what Khudihja's life would be like if she had been able to stay in school, but there is increasing evidence that, when girls are educated, their communities are stronger, safer, and more resilient.

    In a recent study of 162 countries, the Brookings Institution reports that for every additional year of schooling a girl receives, her country is better prepared for, and better able to recover from climate disasters, like droughts and floods.

    Author of "The Kite Runner" and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Khaled Hosseini explains that educated girls are more likely to become decision-makers who reinvest in their community.

  • KHALED HOSSEINI:

    There's a saying that when you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate an entire community and change the culture.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    For Haffizullah, even when drought is responsible for another bad harvest, he's got a secret weapon other farmers don't: two daughters who are educated.

    In this conservative country that has long limited the role of women, Fazeela and Wazeela worked hard to convince their dad, who has just a fifth-grade education, to let them graduate from high school and then earn teaching degrees. Now they are both making a living as elementary school teachers.

  • FAZEELA (through interpreter):

    Before this, our economic situation was terrible. So, I wanted to go to school and be able to earn money. I know that, with my salary, I can provide for myself and my family. I'm really happy to be earning an income.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    Together, the sisters are earning about $4,000 a year. That's the same amount their father used to make off the farm before the drought. Now he's lucky to make $1,000.

  • HAFFIZULLAH AZAMI (through interpreter):

    If my daughters didn't work, I can't imagine it. Our family couldn't survive. Their teaching salary helps our family survive.

  • BETH MURPHY:

    At the girls school where Wazeela and Fazeela teach, there are nearly 700 students whose whole lives have been defined by drought, and everything it is linked to, the poverty, the drugs, the war.

    And while they lose so much to these catastrophic problems, their education is something no one can take from them.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Beth Murphy in Deh Sabz, Afghanistan.

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