Ex-Afghanistan resident to speak at conference

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by Greta Yeoman

A British woman who has spent more than 25 years working in Afghanistan will speak in Timaru next week.

Scotland-based Hermione Youngs, who has family in New Zealand, will speak at Zonta Timaru’s International Women’s Day breakfast on March 8.

The 74-year-old started working on community-based education programmes in Afghanistan in the 1990s; most of it spent in “really rural” areas that were only accessible by donkey, she said.

Following the closure of all the usual access routes into Afghanistan following the 9/11 attack she led a Unicef convoy of education and health materials into the country over a mountain pass.

The 220-tonne load of education materials and medical supplies had to be loaded on to more than 700 donkeys and horses to cross the Shah Saleem mountain pass.

While much of the post-9/11 involvement was led by the United Nations and American and British teams sending in outside help, Ms Youngs’ work continued to focus on supporting the Afghan-led education programmes.

Alternative travel . . . Hermione Youngs (right) travels by donkey with Afghani friends during her stint of more than 20 years working in the country. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

She said a lot of the country’s curriculum had to be redeveloped after the Russians left in 1989, particularly as many of the books included references to the Soviet involvement such as counting in “five Kalashnikovs”.

Her later work involved helping set up health clinics, particularly in rural areas, as Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal death in childbirth in the world.

She said girls’ education levels had improved over the years, but due to women only being able to mix with male members of their own families once they reached puberty, it was still difficult to have teenage girls attending schools.

While she had hoped to see “huge improvement” in education during almost three decades of work in the country, she said that her expectation had been “very naive”.

However, she did hold hope for coming generations.

Ms Youngs was last in Afghanistan two years ago.

She was working as a senior adviser in the Afghan Government when a close friend was kidnapped by armed men in Jalalabad in 2016.

Friendly faces . . . Hermione Youngs (centre) with friends in Kabul, Afghanistan. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Ms Youngs said she saw the impact on her friend’s family – even though she was eventually rescued – and said she knew she could never put her family through that.

“I just had to get out at the time.”

She moved back to Scotland, where she has been living since.

Ms Youngs was made an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2012 UK New Year’s Honours, for her service to development in Afghanistan.

However, her connection to her “adopted homeland” is clear, particularly when she mentions she recently almost filled out a form asking for country of residence with “Afghanistan”.

“At some point, I hope to go back.”

Ms Youngs will speak at the Zonta Timaru International Women’s Day event on March 8. The event will run from 7.30am to 9am at Speight’s Ale House. Tickets at Helloworld Timaru.