Paula Lerner

About This Project

Monday, November 13, 2006; 12:00 AM

Three years ago, an e-mail came through my inbox with a message that someone was looking for help getting computers to Kabul for a women's business center. On a whim, I followed the link at the bottom of the message and stumbled upon the Business Council for Peace, a nonprofit organization that assists women in post-conflict countries. The more I read, the more intrigued I became. Bpeace is focused on three things that are close to my heart: women's issues, business development and peace. Without hesitation I volunteered, offering my skills as a photographer to document Bpeace programs and signing on to the Afghanistan team.

I have spent much of my 21-year career as a photojournalist documenting stories for national and international magazines, including Smithsonian, People, Time, Business Week and Der Spiegel, among others. In both my professional assignments and personal work, women's issues have been a recurring theme. My magazine stories have been populated with women from all walks of life: from a fisherman's wife to a survivor of domestic abuse, from welfare moms to business leaders and performing artists. Knowing Afghanistan's women have faced some of the harshest circumstances of women anywhere in the world, I felt that their stories would be some of the most compelling I could cover.

More importantly, by volunteering for Bpeace I would have the chance not only to record and document powerful stories, but also to have a positive impact on these women's lives. It would be an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference in a very concrete way with a group of like-minded volunteers with a vision.

Since 2003, Bpeace has been working to help Afghan women entrepreneurs grow their businesses so that they, in turn, can create more jobs for others. The organization is guided by the belief that more jobs mean less violence. In the past 18 months, I have made three trips to Kabul with Bpeace teams, documenting the effect the group's efforts have had on individual lives and, by extension, communities.

Bpeace is one of dozens of international groups providing aid in Afghanistan. NGOs help to clear landmines and provide health care, as well as literacy and vocational training to Afghans with funding from both government and private sources. Bpeace funding comes from in-kind donations of its members' time and private donations, plus private foundation and government grants. Its volunteers are a group of mostly American professionals who offer their spare time and business expertise to help women entrepreneurs. The programs involve a great deal of one-on-one mentoring and business training, with the result being a variety of fledgling but profitable enterprises run by Afghan women.

I point to the the success of these women when people ask me about the future of Afghanistan. When I am in Kabul, my Afghan friends often ask to see pictures of my family. As they smile at my family snapshots, we talk about our children. The Afghans I know want what people want everywhere: a peaceful environment to live and work in, a safe country to raise their families and go about their daily lives.

After riots erupted in the capital last May, a Washington Post story quoted a disheartened Kabul resident as saying, "We have been working so hard to build something here. Now the foreigners will all go away and take their money with them." As violence escalates and the Taliban works to re-strengthen its presence, Afghanistan's future and the role of the international community in helping maintain stability there remain in question.

-- Paula Lerner

© 2006 The Washington Post Company