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Widows helping others

After Susan Retik and Patti Quigley lost their husbands on 9/11, they began helping women in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries.

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Education is what all the mothers want for their children, especially daughters, Retik says. "If they're not educated, there isn't going to be any change."

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For Sahera and Sadiqa, both mothers of large families, hope and self-sufficiency are coming through a poultry-rearing program sponsored by CARE and partly funded by grants from Beyond the 11th. Women receive chickens, an incubator, and a three-month supply of feed. "When a woman has an egg, she can either eat it, which supplies protein, or sell it," Retik says.

That program is on hold because of a minor outbreak of avian flu in Kabul. A separate CARE program gives women a cow with a calf, or a pregnant cow. "The women would do anything for a cow," Retik says. "A cow is very easy to take care of, and they can sell the milk." Other widows are learning to weave rugs under the auspices of Arzu Rugs, another recipient of funds from Beyond the 11th. Still others are doing tailoring and making leather goods. Another program will provide silkworms and teach the women how to spin silk.

Beyond poverty, cultural barriers also loom large. Women are not free to walk to a market and sell their goods. "If she had a husband, he could go to the market to sell them for her," Retik says.

Because women do not ride bicycles, they must walk miles. Buses cost money, and the nearest stop is often far away.

Then there is the burqa, the blue head-to-toe covering that makes women almost invisible. When women pull it aside, says Quigley of Wellesley, Mass., "There's a whole beautiful person expressing herself."

Some of the widows' challenges are universal. "Dealing with the kids alone, dealing with the extended family alone, finding a way to support the family - no matter where you are in the world, you understand exactly the feeling, the frustration that comes with dealing with things alone," says Quigley.

A widow's inability to earn a living can deeply affect her children. When sons must work at an early age to support their families, they miss out on education. "We met widows whose sons, 12 or 14 years old, had to do things like pushing a pushcart," Perera says. "People would pay them a few cents to push goods from one place to another on a cart."

Another woman sent her sons, ages 13 and 15, to work in Pakistan as stonemasons because they needed the income, he adds. "Their mother and grandmother just cried when they thought about that - working long hours in the sun and not able to go to school."

Afghanistan is hardly the only country where widows are marginalized. "In many developing societies, and certainly poor societies, where women may lack access to education and jobs and resources, their livelihood depends on their husband," says Patricia Morris, program director of Women for Women International, a third recipient of Beyond the 11th funds. "When they lose him, their livelihood is completely gone."

Yet progress is evident. As her group helps Afghan widows start businesses, Dr. Morris says, "It's amazing the transformation you see in women's lives when they are able to provide for themselves."

The challenge ahead, Retik adds, involves not only getting men to value women more, but getting women to value themselves more. "Because they've never experienced true freedom or equality, they don't think they're worth as much as a man."

A documentary about the two women and their work, called "Beyond the 11th," will première in New York and Boston on Sept. 11, the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. "Very few people are thinking about these widows in Afghanistan," Retik says. "If we can shed some light on that, it's worth its weight in gold."