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Mountain climbing gives Afghan girls a chance to breathe free

Few are brave enough to climb Afghanistan's rugged mountains. But for women, harassment from extremist groups make practicing outdoor sports even more difficult. A new organization is helping women find peace living in the war-stricken country by teaching them how to hike and rock climb. Julia Griffin reports on how women in Afghanistan are conquering new heights.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Staying in Asia, we found an organization that is helping young women in Afghanistan participate in new outdoor sports for that country, hiking and rock climbing.

    Independent filmmaker Atia Musazay brings us the story of Ascend Athletics, an American organization that is training what has become the first climbing team of its kind in the war-stricken country.

    The NewsHour’s Julia Griffin has details.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Afghanistan is not known for its hiking or climbing. It’s not safe.

    But this team of young women is hoping to change that.

    Freshta is part of this team.

  • Freshta:

    (Through interpreter) The wind that hits my face and the view that I see from the top of the mountain, not everyone has the opportunity to see that. We take pictures and breathe freely. I think most Afghan girls will never have this experience.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Ascend Athletics, a nonprofit of American professional climbers, is training the team of young Afghan girls. Their goal is to help women find peace in the midst of war.

    Afghanistan is the eighth most mountainous country in the world. Nearly 75 percent of the country is covered by rugged mountains, and few are brave enough to climb them. The organization trains about 20 girls each year.

    Freshta works for Ascend Athletics as a program coordinator.

  • Freshta:

    (Through interpreter) When I heard about this position, I really liked it. What was interesting to me was that women were doing this for other women. It’s a new sport in Afghanistan, and I knew I had to be a part of this.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Today, they are practicing rock climbing in a mountain at a location they cannot disclose for safety reasons. Women in Afghanistan frequently participate in indoor sports, but the country’s conservative culture makes outdoor sports more difficult to practice.

    Harassment and even threats of violence from the Taliban and other extremists mean the group must travel to climb sites in secret.

  • Woman:

    (Through interpreter) Somebody shot at us. They are trying to scare us.

  • Julia Griffin:

    While ascending over a sharp ridge, a gunshot rang out from the distance. The team holds position to make sure the coast is clear.

  • Woman:

    (Through interpreter) How dare they do it so close to us? It hit this rock near us.

  • Gawhar:

    (Through interpreter) Even here in the mountains where there is no one, we are not safe. But I’m still happy we can rock-climb even in these conditions.

  • Julia Griffin: 

    Eighteen-year-old Gawhar recently joined the team.

  • Gawhar:

    (Through interpreter) When I’m exercising, I feel healthy. I feel like I’m really living.

  • Julia Griffin:

    The Ascend Athletics team also addresses issues of trauma and mental health that can come with living in an unstable country. Freshta was a student at the American University of Afghanistan in 2016 when the Taliban attacked the school and killed 13 people.

  • Freshta:

    (Through interpreter) When us girls get together, we talk about happiness and our dreams. But we also talk about the bombings. We ask each other if we’re OK.

  • Julia Griffin:

    The United Nations reports that the conflict in the country have been affecting women at record levels. The rate of female casualties has increased 23 percent since 2016.

    Many victims were civil servants working for government institutions. Freshta says she is frequently reminded of the attacks.

  • Freshta:

    (Through interpreter) I worry about the day a bomb goes off, and I get a call that I lost a loved one.

  • Julia Griffin: 

    Rayhana is 18 and wants to be a construction engineer. She’s in the second year of her studies and the only woman in her program.

  • Rayhana:

    (Through interpreter) This society thinks mountain climbing is not for women and that a woman cannot make it to the top. I really like mountaineering, especially because can I prove to men that women can do anything.

  • Freshta:

    (Through interpreter) There have been times we have had rocks hurled at us. We have been yelled at. We try not to think about these things. If I want to be a mountaineer, if I want to conquer heights, I will do it. I want that pride in myself.

  • Julia Griffin:

    In 2018, the team plans to ascend mountain

    Mount Noshaq At nearly 25,000 feet, it’s the highest peak in Afghanistan.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Julia Griffin.

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