When human rights lawyer and ultra-marathon runner, Stephanie Case, began working with women and young girls at a shelter for survivors of gender-based violence in Kabul, she had no idea of the positive social change she was about to influence. It was 2014, and the Taliban had been ousted 13 years earlier. Girls were now accepted into higher education – and this society, steeped in tradition, was seeing positive progression. For the next six years, Free To Run – the non-profit founded by Stephanie – helped Afghan women across five provinces start running. In August 2021, when the Taliban regained power, the team were forced to evacuate the country. Here, the current executive director, Sarah Murray, shares Free To Run’s evolving story.
Stephanie is a strong feminist and human rights activist. She was training for an ultra race in Kabul, where she was also fundraising for a women’s shelter. The women she was running on behalf of were curious about her running. They really wanted to run with her.
Stephanie began coaching a small group of women and girls. The training grew more intense as the women reached longer distances. Eventually, shehelped train the first Afghan woman to run a marathon.When the program officially launched in 2016, it was to draw in a bigger base of women and girls.
Young women in Afghanistan were – and still are – telling us they want to do this. The program derived from the interest of the women themselves. The spirit of Free To Run means we ask the young women and girls to lead what they want, when and where to run, and whether it’s safe. It often requires working with imams, fathers and brothers to get to the roots of the community.
Between 2016 and 2021, we supported the growth, health and leadership of almost 4,000 women and girls through the program. After realizing the model could be used for girls living in other conflict zones, we began a similar program in Iraq – working with Syrian, Yazidi and Arab women at internally displaced person (IDP) and refugee camps. We also piloted programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Hong Kong. Today, our most significant presence is in Iraq. We are also experimenting with partnering with local organizations in Afghanistan to continue supporting girls and women within the bounds of what is allowed by the Taliban [who took control of the government in August 2021].
The program now lasts for 12 months. The girls and young women meet twice a week for a Life Skills Through Sport course, combining running and other physical activities such as hiking, with an experiential, gender-specific curriculum, covering everything from communication skills and conflict resolution, to nutrition, body image and mental health. After six months, everyone is given the opportunity to train for a race. For many, that’s a 5K or 10K run, and for some it is a marathon. Some women and girls who have been especially committed to the program are invited to join a core team to deeper explore their skills, while other women are offered the role of leader for the next cohort.
What this program means to women and girls is magic. Anyone who understands the transferability of sporting skills into life skills will know how valuable this is. There is a direct correlation between their physical activity and confidence in day-to-day life. These girls and young women are pushing gender boundaries and realizing the impossible is possible.
There is already something inherently strong, brilliant and fierce about these girls and young women. In Iraq, many people are traumatized [from the conflict they’ve witnessed and from fleeing their homes]. In addition, several of our 16 to 18-year-old participants are married – and in their cultural context, their husbands are considered to be their guardians. This could stand in the way of them being granted permission to run [women don’t tend to take part in sports]. Others convince their parents to let them join us.
The negotiation that takes place is intense. To challenge societal norms, and do something that they want for themselves, after already going through so much, is courageous in itself. What Free To Run does is provide a place for those skills to be watered. We help with the cultivation.
Find out more about Free to Run.