Empowering Women Living in Difficult Circumstances

When I first spoke to Cathy Raymond in mid-December 2016, little did we both know about the storm that was about to hit. As I review our interview, her words and actions take on a much deeper, more profound meaning. Educators like Cathy make a difference in the world because of one important word: empathy. Cathy cares about the human condition; she cares about human rights for all, and uses her position to empower women through language education in countries stricken by war and extreme poverty. In my view, Cathy is a true global citizen. I dedicate my blog this year to bringing to light the stories of these global citizens in our TESOL community, those individual who exemplify the core values of TESOL’s mission.


Cathy Raymond with Nepalese School Children

Cathy Raymond, Assistant Director of English Language Programs at Washington University and Executive Director for the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR), takes human compassion to an international level, empowering women in Afghanistan and Nepal through woman-to-woman mentoring and English language education.

Sherry Blok (SB): Cathy, I came across your message on MyTESOL calling for volunteers and contacted you immediately with piqued curiosity. Can you tell us a little bit about AIWR?

Cathy Raymond (CR): Founded by Lisa Herb, after living in Central Asia and visiting Afghanistan, the Alliance for International Women’s Rights has the mission to support women leaders and future women leaders in developing countries, with a current focus on Afghanistan and Nepal. We have two programs at AIWR: the English Program and the Mentor Program. The English Program focuses on English language training while the Mentor Program selects qualified women professionals to provide long-distance mentoring to Afghan women in the subject matter of the mentor’s expertise. I will step into the role of executive director of AIWR, following in the footsteps of my cherished predecessor, Lisa Herb, who has decided to use her legal skills to fight for the protection of American civil liberties in the wake of the recent election.

SB: In some of my past blogs, I’ve spoken to some inspiring international educators from TESOL affiliates who empower the disempowered through ELT. In your view, how does English language teaching lead to empowerment for learners living in difficult circumstances?

CR: The ability to speak English increases the capacity of Afghan and Nepali women leaders and future women leaders to more easily access educational and job opportunities. English also allows women to share their experiences with the international community and to reach out for scholarships and advice. The exchanges that happen online between our international teachers and the Afghan and Nepali students also go far beyond English language teaching and learning. They offer a unique opportunity for meaningful cultural exchanges that build understanding between the Western world and other countries, one person at a time. In the wake of a highly contentious U.S. presidential election and today’s troubling times in general, these efforts to nurture cross-cultural understanding are more important than ever.

SB: It must be so meaningful for you to be able to exchange with women real-time and hear their stories. What are some of the contextual realities of these women in Afghanistan and Nepal?

CR: Afghan women face discrimination, harassment, and threats to their safety on a daily basis. This past weekend, five women were brutally gunned down on their way to work at the Kandahar airport. (Three of them were students from our partner institution in Afghanistan.) Hearing this news devastated all of us at AIWR, and we immediately reached out to our partner organization in solidarity and support. We have a space on our website called “In the Life” where our students can publish their writing anonymously. One of our Afghan students wrote and published this poem, and I would like to let her words answer this question.

Dream It. Believe It. Achieve It.
Live beautifully and dream passionately.
I have a dream that one day people will be able to live in peace in my country.
I have a dream that one day we will be able to find humanity everywhere in each corner of our country.
I have a dream that one day a girl will be able to live her dreams in her reality, that a mother will be no longer worried when her daughter going to school.
I am living in a country where when someone dies, others say that he becomes free from struggles and problems.
I have a dream to live in a country where no one will say that.
I have a dream that one day no longer girls will be the victims of our traditions and customs and domestic violence in our country.
I have a dream that one day I will be able to make decisions for myself, to decide my future and my profession.
I have a dream that one day I will be able to travel alone to take steps equally with my brother.

SB: Her poem strikes a chord with me as I heard many stories like this when I was in Pakistan. How does your mentoring project impact the lives of these women?

CR: I have invited Gayle Zilber, our mentor program director, and lawyer with an interest in international human rights law, women’s rights law, and gender equality to answer this question:

The women mentees who participate in the Mentor Program are all professional working women who have overcome incredible barriers to achieve success, yet still struggle with what is often a very hostile working environment. Having the emotional support and professional guidance from language instructors and experts in their line of work, who help them master the specialized English terminology and content requirements of their fields, has accelerated their career advancement. Some of the mentees in our program have, with the instruction and support of their mentors, become eligible for significantly better jobs, with higher pay and improved circumstances. Seeing their success has inspired their extended families to permit younger female relatives to attend school and to work.

SB: Inspiring—you are making such a difference. What lessons have you learned by being mentored by someone living very different realities and circumstances?

CR: One young Afghan woman in particular who has inspired me in countless ways over the past several years I met back in 2010 when she was around twelve years old and was taking online English classes through AIWR. In order to protect her identity, I am omitting her name for this interview. Although it surprised me a bit at the time that a twelve-year-old Afghan girl would take online English classes in addition to her regular school work, it was even more astonishing to me that she was also already helping one of our Afghan partner organisations with many of the day-to-day coordinating duties. I clearly remember thinking about how very young she was to be entrusted with such responsibility, and how maturely she was able to handle the administrative and communication challenges inherent to a multicultural online education program. As time passed, I began corresponding regularly with this young woman on Skype, and she naturally wiggled her way into my heart and became my Afghan daughter. Over the years, she developed her English language skills, and, equally importantly, she developed her outstanding leadership skills. She was always sharply focused on her own education but also on the education of other girls and women in Afghanistan. In her unquestioning pursuit of this basic right, she has naturally become a role model for other young Afghan women and for Afghan parents who see in her a success story. Some parents have even agreed to let their own daughters take English classes because of her.

She is a role model for me, both personally and professionally, for our entire team at AIWR, and for young Afghan women pursuing their educational dreams. She is my Afghan daughter, and one of my most powerful mentors.

SB: Cathy, what are your best practices in mentoring?

CR: For me, mentoring is about interacting with people on equal footing. I do not pretend to have all the answers, and I know from my years of experience that I will learn as much from others as I have to give to them if I maintain an open mind and a willingness to listen. As I’ve watched my children grow and develop, for example, I have learned at least as much about confidence, hard work, and success from them as they have learned from me. From my Afghan daughter, I have learned about tenacity, big dreams, and courage, and I have done my best to support and encourage her to pursue her goals and dreams. From all of my international students over the years, I have learned how to breathe through challenging cross-cultural experiences and to engage in meaningful discussions while providing my students with a safe space for sharing their experiences. Mentoring others, for me, means allowing myself to be mentored by them.

As far as best practices in the logistics of mentoring:

  • It helps to set up a mentoring match with a specific schedule and clear guidelines, checking in with the mentors each month through an online monthly report to monitor the match.
  • We also only work with well qualified and skilled mentors and select only mentees who already possess a minimum amount of English skills and who have committed to an attendance policy to try to ensure a meaningful experience for the mentors and mentees.
  • We place emphasis on individualized programming at AIWR. Because all of our educational programming is one-on-one, our teachers and mentors have the ability to tailor courses and training to the specific needs of our individual students and mentees. This not only provides consistently relevant training, but it also often leads to deeper conversations and meaningful cross-cultural relationships between women.

SB: How can TESOLers get involved with AIWR?

We are always looking for highly qualified English teachers and mentors. To apply for either the English Program or the Mentor Program, please email a completed application form to me at cathyr@aiwr.org. Interested TESOLERS can find application forms at the AIWR website.

Join Cathy at TESOL 2017 in Seattle for “Distance Language Training for Women in Afghanistan and Nepal, Friday, 24 March, 12:30 pm–1:45 pm in the poster area in the Expo Hall.

About Sherry Blok

Sherry Blok
Sherry Blok is the assistant director of programs at the Centre for Continuing Education, Concordia University. Montreal, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in second language education from McGill University and has more than 20 years of experience as an ESL lecturer in the intensive English program at Concordia University. She received the TESOL Teacher of the Year Award in 2015 and has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to English for academic purposes, global citizenship education, assessment, and teacher feedback.
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