Skip to main content

Book scandal must not reflect on Afghan girls schools

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
  • Greg Mortenson, who's built Afghan girls schools, faces questions over veracity of book
  • Gayle Lemmon: Author's message, that girls education is crucial, must not be lost
  • Benefits of girls education multiply, creating healthier, more stable families, Lemmon writes
  • Don't let firestrom discredit the heroines at the heart of his work building schools, she urges

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council of Foreign Relations. She writes extensively about women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years.

(CNN) -- We live in the Charlie Sheen era of wall-to-wall, "shock and awe" scandal coverage. And at the moment, Greg Mortenson is in the crosshairs. The man from Montana who toured America promoting the potential of girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan is now experiencing the painful flip side of the media adulation that catapulted him to fame.

Mortenson has built schools in Afghanistan, focusing on the most remote parts of the country. A recent investigation from the U.S. news magazine "60 Minutes" has raised questions about his foundation's finances and the veracity of his book, "Three Cups of Tea."

However you may feel about this controversy, it cannot be denied that Mortenson has been one of the most effective advocates for girls education -- an issue that so often traffics in obscurity and penury. (A recent Time magazine article noted that 2 cents of every development dollar goes to girls -- and that is an improvement over where it was in the last decade.) The media firestorm threatens to overshadow, or worse, discredit the heroines at the heart of his work building schools in Afghanistan.

I have reported from Afghanistan since 2005, focusing on a largely overlooked and underreported story: the contributions women and girls make every day to their families and their neighborhoods. And in full disclosure: I have just written a book about young women who became entrepreneurs and breadwinners under the Taliban, a book Mortenson endorsed.

The girls I have encountered in Afghanistan over the years risk their lives each day to try to get an education: kidnappings, acid attacks, family disapproval and bombings -- this is the obstacle course of perils they run each day just to get to school. But that doesn't deter them. These girls believe deeply they can change their country if only they can get a chance. And when you meet them, you believe it, too.

Is 'Three Cups of Tea' fact or fiction?
Author's kidnap claims truth or fiction?

When I was in Afghanistan last December I saw the impact these young women have all around their country. The head of the Afghan Midwives Association is a 26-year-old woman who in 2004 graduated in the first class of Afghanistan's new midwifery training school. She became a midwife because as a girl living in Kabul under the Taliban, she saw firsthand how deadly pregnancy could be when women couldn't get to a doctor. Her career is now dedicated to teaching young women all around Afghanistan how to become midwives and save women's lives in their homes. And in a country in which 1 in 11 women die in childbirth, her efforts mean the difference between life and death for many. Without education, her work would be impossible.

Just one extra year in primary school for girls around the world translates into a 10 to 20% boost in income for a lifetime, according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations. Those figures climb even higher when it comes to secondary schooling, which is often even more out of reach for young women in tough parts of the globe. Girls education produces a positive multiplier that stretches across sectors, creating healthier and more stable families, because women who learn, earn. And that earning allows them to send both their boys AND their girls to school, creating a better shot at prosperity for the next generation.

Compassion fatigue has gripped our country, which feels overwhelmed and exhausted by crises and hard times of its own. A recent Washington Post poll found nearly two-thirds of the American public believe the Afghanistan war isn't worth fighting and that the United States must find a way out.

Yet even while America seeks to wind down the war, Americans have continued to step up and help Afghan girls. When President Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Prize funds to Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, with the idea that those dollars would build more schools and educate more girls in Afghanistan, Americans applauded, because America cared.

The risk now is that they won't. And that apathy is what we must guard against. Because these issues are far larger than any one man or woman. And they are urgent.

In the wake of the allegations around "Three Cups of Tea" and the truth it contains, we must not forget about the girls. Investing in girls strengthens communities. Stronger communities make for a more stable world. And at a time in which upheaval has become the norm, this prosperity and security dividend is in the interest of everyone who fights each day for something better for their children.

Educating girls improves the world. And that is a fact.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

Featured Deal |