Documentary to premiere at Vail Mountain School
March 10, 2011
VAIL, Colorado – One day, Shannon Galpin got mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more.
She’d lived overseas most of her adult life, returned to the U.S. to raise her daughter, and was tired of complaining to the people around her about the international situation and women’s place in it.
You have to help people where they are.
She decided it would be Afghanistan. She sold the house, leveraged a few loans and headed to the Middle East to launch Mountain2Mountain to help educate and empower women in the developing world. That was November 2006.
“That’s the mindset I would want to instill in my own daughter, that she had a mother who stood up for what was right,” Galpin said. “I decided I am not going to sit on the sidelines and allow atrocities against women.”
So there she was in Afghanistan, a nation that has been at war with itself and other countries for more than four decades. When everyone needs everything, you do anything you can.
Galpin started in rural areas, educating women when and where she was allowed.
Then she, a woman in Afghanistan, got on a bicycle and rode around parts of the Panjshir Valley. It was unheard of, unprecedented, unstoppable.
Galpin enjoyed her first bike rides so much she took a second ride last year, this one all the way across the Panjshir Valley.
“For the first one we were riding in different places to gauge the reaction,” Galpin said.
It was mixed, she said. Most Afghan men encouraged her because she’s a foreign woman. Some men rode along and some wanted to race.
She could do it with few problems because she looked foreign.
“If I looked Afghan it might be trouble,” Galpin said.
Afghan men said they were not offended by what she was doing, but they wouldn’t let their women do it.
“I sort of became that third gender. I’m a woman who is treated like a man,” Galpin said. “Even though you might think it would be a hindrance to be foreign, it’s not. I can negotiate with men and still have full access to women, even though I have to go to a completely different part of the house to do it.”
She quickly learned to take advantage of it.
“It was a shock during my first visit. Now, 10 trips later I use it to my advantage,” she said. “Men are willing to let me be one of them.”
Now there’s a documentary film about Mountain2Mountain. Allison Otto made the film, “Waking Lions,” and it’s premiering Sunday night at Vail Mountain School, where Otto graduated in 1994.
When they decided to move ahead with the film, Galpin put three years worth of footage into Otto’s hands. It took months to edit it down to the 20-minute documentary.
The title comes from a quote about Afghan women by Meena Keshwar Kamal, founder of a women’s rights group in Afghanistan: “Afghan women are like sleeping lions. When they’re awoken they can play a wonderful role in any social revolution.”
The film takes a look at what it means to be a female aid worker, both here and in Afghanistan.
“Shannon’s work speaks for itself,” Otto said. “When you believe in what someone is doing, it’s easy. I believe in the importance of women’s rights, and this was a way for me to help.”
Women and girls are the solution for so many social ills, Otto said.
The statistics bear her out: According to the United Nations, when you educate women, the economy improves and violence goes down. Educating 10 percent of the women in a country will improve its gross domestic product by 25 percent.
Successes are mounting and many come through the back door, as they prove that women have worth and can help create social and economic activity.
The Karzai government donated land to build a school for the deaf.
“It’s hard to get land and it’s also very expensive,” Galpin said.
They launched a rural midwife program, teaching women to help birth children. Afghanistan has the highest maternal and infant death rate in the world, Galpin said.
That’s partly because there’s no infrastructure after 40 years of war. Doctors, when one is available, cannot see a woman in labor.
So women give birth unattended.
Training women as midwifes is generally supported, even in Afghanistan’s most backward areas. But women have no education and in a town of 5,000 people you might not find any women who can read or write.
“A problem is that there are no literate women,” Galpin said.
So you start where they are. When village leaders see that women have useful and profitable skills, they’re sometimes open to more training and more education, Galpin said.
“It’s not a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue and women need to be at the table,” Galpin said. “In some parts of the world, women are afraid to be at the table.”