Sally Armstrong was on the ground in Afghanistan four months after the Taliban took over and she was the only one reporting what was happening to the country’s women.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but partly I could not believe that the world was looking the other way.”
Armstrong, a journalist, best-selling author and human-rights activist, is a three-time Amnesty International Canada award winner and member of the Order of Canada, among many other achievements. She’ll be speaking in Parksville tomorrow, Jan. 23 at an Oceanside Grandmothers to Grandmothers luncheon.
Armstrong began her writing career when she was working as a high school physical education teacher. A colleague at the school recommended her to a man starting up a magazine. At that time she was involved in some innovative projects like teaching fitness to music (now called aerobics).
To her surprise, the man hired her, along with a home economics teacher and a recipe developer.
“So, the three of us opened a magazine called Canadian Living and that’s how I started,” Armstrong said from her home in Toronto.
Armstrong now splits her time between Toronto and Salt Spring Island.
Growing up in the 1960s, Armstrong said she quickly became an advocate for women and human rights. After becoming the editor of Homemaker’s magazine she decided to do some unofficial research, she said, and wrote to 300 readers asking them if they were bothered by what was happening to women in zones of conflict. They echoed her feelings, she said, and so she began her career writing about women’s issues.
She wrote an article in 1997 called Veiled Threat about the lives of women in Afghanistan under a Taliban regime, and later it became a bestselling book.
She has since covered stories in zones of conflict all over the world, including Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.
It hasn’t been easy, and Armstrong admits she’s been shaken to the bone before.
“I’m scared to death sometimes, she said. “I think sometimes my ribs are going to break my heart’s pounding so hard.”
But these situations also produce the best stories, she said, and she feels humbled the women share these remarkable stories with her. Some even ask her to go tell people what is happening to them, to be their “voice.”
“That’s pretty powerful stuff for a journalist to be picking up,” she said.
Armstrong returned to Afghanistan looking to measure any progress that had been made since her initial visit and reports the results in her book Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women (2008).
Despite reports coming from the four southern provinces that not much has changed, Armstrong disagrees.
“The fact is there are 34 provinces in Afghanistan and we’re only concentrating on four — in the other 30 provinces there has been a lot of change.”
An independent human rights commission has been set up, she said, and although much more needs to happen, women are getting back to work and girls are getting back to school.
Despite all the stories Armstrong has delivered on Afghanistan over the years, the one she has just finished (which will be aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas on Feb. 11 at 9 p.m.) is the best news she has heard in the country and one of the best stories she gotten a hold of, she said.
The story is about a group of young women who want change in their country and they believe they have the tools to do so.
“These kids are bound and determined,” she said. “I’m just dazzled by them. Young people can change the world — that’s always who does it.”
And these women are increasingly being joined by men, she said, dubbing it “the new women’s movement.”
Armstrong believes we are nearly at the tipping point of worldwide change and has a new book she’s preparing to release March 5 that will prove her point. It’s called Ascent of Women: Our Turn, Our Way – A Remarkable Story of Worldwide Change.
During her talk at the Parksville Community and Conference Centre she will discuss where women are in the world today and where they’re going, as well as the grandmothers she encountered during her time in Africa.
Oceanside Grandmothers to Grandmothers is an organization in support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation assisting grandmothers in Africa whose lives have been affected by the AIDS pandemic. The event runs from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, where there will be a lunch and marketplace with crafts. Tickets are $25 and may still be available by calling Patti at 250-738-0905.