Afghanistan Emergency Initiative Featured in Lohud

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Stephanie Sinclair believes Afghanistan's girls and women deserve to keep their rights and pursue their dreams.

Inspired by what she witnessed as a photojournalist working in the Middle East, Sinclair several years ago formed a nonprofit to raise awareness of children being forced to marry in places all around the world.

But in recent weeks her Peekskill-based group has been helping women in other, more immediate ways. Too Young To Wed has assisted 65 people — women and their families — evacuate from Afghanistan as the Taliban rapidly took over the country, said Sinclair, the nonprofit’s founding executive director.

Sinclair described helping the country's recently empowered women as the U.S.'s duty.

"Those were our tax dollars that invested in building those girls' and women's dreams, and helping them become in positions of power," she said. "And then it's like the floor drops out from underneath of them."

The group's members have been vigilant in their efforts to find and vet available flights, and coordinate with teams in Afghanistan. Sometimes that has meant pulling 48-hour shifts to prevent missing an opportunity, said Sinclair, who lived in the Middle East for six years and has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

“We’ve had a long history of having this deep love and concern for the girls of Afghanistan,” Sinclair said, adding that “I was immediately concerned for the translators who had helped us through the years, and I was still in touch with them.”

Too Young to Wed got people out from various walks of life, including female translators, who have assisted the nonprofit group and Sinclair, and nearly all of the translators' family members, she said. 

“We’re starting to now get emails from them and pictures and things like that being like, ‘OK, so we’re in Kuwait or we’re in Doha,” she said of evacuees who are at various stages in the resettlement process.

The last U.S. forces left Afghanistan on Monday, exiting Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, after 20 years of what was the U.S.’s longest war.

However, Too Young To Wed plans to continue to try to help people who want to leave the country.

"These women and girls do not deserve this — it's beyond letting them down; it’s a betrayal, and it needs to be treated with the seriousness of if all of a sudden all American women and girls couldn't go to work and couldn't go to school, and couldn't sing and couldn't play sports," Sinclair said.

'These insanely accomplished women and girls'

The nonprofit group knows of hundreds more women and girls who want to leave Afghanistan “and are at very, very high risk,” Sinclair said.

“It’s a lot of women and girls who basically are being targeted simply because they were girls and women who are dreaming and accomplishing — they’re dreaming for a better life and, in many cases, they’re accomplishing those dreams,” Sinclair said.

“And so I think that’s been the hardest part of this,” she added. “Looking at this list of these insanely accomplished women and girls who everyone was like, 'Afghan women should be doing these things, they deserve these things' — and they were doing them, and then now they’re targeted for doing them.”

Sinclair said restrictions on getting to the airport in Kabul and onto a plane grew stricter as Monday’s U.S. troop withdrawal drew closer.

“So basically we’re looking at other options now,” she said, such as over land or by charter flights.

Will more be permitted to leave?

News reports have said the Taliban’s spokesperson said the airport in Kabul will reopen in days to air traffic and that Afghans will be able to leave the country if they have passports and visas. The message has also been that women will not be harmed.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S. will continue to try to get American and Afghans out of the countryand work with the neighbors of Afghanistan to secure their departure.

Blinken said the Taliban seeks international legitimacy, and that its leaders can do that by “meeting commitments and obligations on freedom of travel, respecting the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women and minorities."

Sinclair said there are different factions of the Taliban. 

She said some women were told they had 20 days until the rights they enjoyed were over, coinciding with the U.S.'s withdrawal.

She said there's been video of girls being taken from their families by Taliban members and that there's been violence and, in several instances, deaths.

“I mean, I hope we’re wrong, right?" Sinclair said of how the Taliban will conduct themselves. "I hope that there will be some pressure from the international community and maybe the Taliban want legitimacy."

Child marriage spurred advocacy

The nonprofit Sinclair started grew out of her photojournalism, which has put a focus on the practice of child marriage in various countries.

“And that project started in Afghanistan — it was the first place I actually learned about, you know, that child marriage was still such a significant issue,” Sinclair said.

In Herat, Afghanistan, Sinclair was working on a project about girls and women who attempted suicide by setting themselves on fire. In a burn ward, she learned most of them had been forced to marry when they were children.

There were few photographs depicting that child marriage was going on, she said.

For years, Sinclair has photographed it and her work has been in the New York Times and National Geographic.

Her work was also featured at the first International Day of the Girl Child.

Held in 2012, according to Too Young to Wed's website, "dignitaries from around the world gathered at the United Nations in New York City that day and, surrounded by photographs of child brides as young as five, pledged to do whatever it took to end child marriage."

Reporting from USA TODAY was used in this article. Michael P. McKinney covers northern Westchester for the Journal News.