For the past two decades, the first step for a woman in Afghanistan pursuing higher education was to learn English. And Lisa Herb ’88 created a U.S.-based mentorship program that helped them do it.
“They had to pass an English entrance exam, because much of the curriculum was in English at Afghan universities,” says Herb, founder of the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR), which supports women in developing countries, connecting them with skilled professionals in developed countries through long-distance empowerment programs. “It’s mostly due to the fact that, with 30 to 40 years of non-stop conflict, there were just not a lot of materials available in Dari or Pashto, the local languages. So they had to use materials from elsewhere for their texts to be up-to-date, especially in the sciences and technology.”
Herb, together with a team of six AIWR volunteers across the U.S., worked with Afghan girls and women as young as 15 through their English Program. They met with the girls using voice calls on Skype, since the Internet bandwidth often wasn’t strong enough to accommodate video calls. Most of their students learning English lived in cities, like Kabul or Kandahar, where they partnered with an organization that ran one of the few computer labs open to women. Even after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Herb says that the conservative culture in some parts of the country, combined with limited access to technology, made it challenging for women who wanted to learn. But nonetheless, the AIWR, which started working in Afghanistan in 2007, was successful in supporting many women in their quest for education.
“[There are] a few journalists, several doctors, dentists, several went on to law school, after our English Program,” Herb says. “Those who wanted to participate in our programs are very driven young women. They wanted to succeed and they were doing everything they could, so it’s no surprise that they did in fact succeed.”
And once they were in school or on the job, they could be part of AIWR’s Mentor Program, which offered weekly one-on-one mentoring sessions for women leaders in Afghanistan and other developing countries. Not only do Herb and the other AIWR volunteers support these women from across the world, but the Afghan women support each other.
“What would often make me so happy is that many of them, in addition to going on to university, would share their skills and teach other young women, either formally or informally,” Herb says. “They were passing on their skills very directly to others, which was great.”
Herb founded the AIWR in 2005 after working with an international women’s rights group in Mongolia, where she lived for a year and half in the early 2000s. Her husband, Peter Zahler, is a wildlife biologist, and his work brought them to Mongolia. Herb, a lawyer by training, was working remotely for a law firm at home in Seattle and helped the women’s rights group with documents and communications that needed to be in English. When they moved back to the U.S. to New York, she continued that work and also continued to help the Mongolian women on a long-distance basis.
“Ultimately, that led to forming this current organization,” she says. “That concept of continuing to help them, it struck me that, yes, there’s a need. I looked around for an organization that would fill that need and there wasn’t any. So I formed the Alliance for International Women’s Rights, with the purpose of providing support to women leaders in developing countries through long-distance programs.”
They started in Mongolia and have also worked with women in Kazakhstan and Nepal, but the majority of their focus was on Afghanistan, starting in 2007, when they connected with several groups working for Afghan women’s rights, including U.S. State Department programs.
In 2007, Herb visited Afghanistan to continue to expand AIWR’s programs.
“I was just so overwhelmed by the sheer need for our services. Even though the Taliban were no longer in power at that point, being a woman in Afghanistan was one of the hardest situations to be in; the roadblocks were immense. Many people felt women should not be educated; they should not be seen outside the home; they should not interact with men outside their family; they should not work and it is wrong to take a job away from a man if they are working. Many times, they would receive death threats for engaging in education or public life or trying to get a job. There were no mentoring programs or one-on-one support anywhere for them within the country.”
After the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Herb says, “It’s beyond heartbreaking. We gave these women so much hope only to have it all yanked away. The women in AIWR’s programs have been describing to us the utter desperation that they and all Afghan women and girls are feeling. The level of despair they are describing is unimaginable.”
Since August, the AIWR has worked with international women’s rights organizations to help many of their women leaders flee the country for safety. The future of the AIWR in Afghanistan is uncertain because of the political situation, but Herb remains committed to supporting international women leaders there and in other countries. She was an international relations major at Notre Dame, and, in addition to practicing law for the last 28 years, she taught English and business law in Thailand early in her career.
“Notre Dame has a great focus on the international community, not only the typical study abroad programs, but they also now have the Kroc Institute Peace Studies Program that brings in scholars from all over the world, and it’s just part of the fabric of Notre Dame to think about the global community,” says Herb, who practices commercial litigation alongside her work with the AIWR and raising son Gabe, 13. “That was one of the things, even way back in the '80s when I went there, that drew me to Notre Dame, and I still appreciate that about it. It’s still part of who I am and why I do this type of work."