LISTEN: Former Juneauite working for international watchdog group talks women’s rights, US troops leaving Afghanistan

As the U.S. nears President Joe Biden’s August deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the politics and logistics of getting everyone out of there are complicated and shifting all over the country. And the effects of the U.S. military pulling out are still being discovered. 

Former Juneau resident Heather Barr is keeping an eye on the region. She’s living in Pakistan now working for Human Rights Watch. 

KTOO’s Lyndsey Brollini caught up with Barr during a brief visit back to town to find out more about her work in human rights and the current situation in Afghanistan. 


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Brollini: I’m interested in hearing about your journey. Like, you know, you came from Juneau. How did you end up working with Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan?

Heather Barr, co-director of the Women's Rights division at the Human Rights Watch. (Photo courtesy/Heather Barr.)
Heather Barr, co-director of the Women’s Rights division at the Human Rights Watch. (Photo courtesy of Heather Barr.)

Barr: I left Juneau and moved to Seattle first. And then I went to London and the United Kingdom. And traveled around for about a year and a half in Africa and Asia. And then moved to New York for about 12 years, went to law school, worked as a prisoners rights lawyer in New York, and then decided to go back to school and study international human rights. Went back to London to do that. And then joined the United Nations. Firstly, in Africa, in a small country called Burundi, and then in Afghanistan. And then while I was in Afghanistan, I stayed there for six years, I left the UN and joined the organization I work for now, Human Rights Watch. 

Brollini: So what is the kind of work that you do at the Human Rights Watch?

Barr: So we document human rights abuses and try to advocate for an end to human rights abuses. I moved over to the Women’s Rights Division about seven years ago. And since then, I’ve been working on lots of different issues, including girls’ access to education, child marriage. I worked in human trafficking. Our approach is always to collect evidence about what’s actually happening on the ground and then use that evidence to try and make governments or international organizations like the UN or companies stop whatever abuses are going on.

Brollini: How did you get involved in human rights?

Barr: I don’t know, I got really into punk rock music when I was a teenager in Juneau still. It was really hard to buy albums back then, but you can order them through the mail. And I started reading magazines about music, but also about politics. And so that made me think about things in some different ways. And then when I first got to New York, the first full-time job I had was working in the shelter for homeless women. After working there for a while, I was less interested in trying to change the clients and more interested in trying to change the way the government worked and how it was behaving in the sense that it was making it impossible for the women I worked with to get housing and to get health care and to get drug treatment and to get public benefits and so on. So I guess that’s how I got interested in human rights.

Brollini: Wow. I love that it started with, like, punk rock and magazines and stuff. How is the situation like in Afghanistan, you know, with the U.S. military leaving? And how is that impacting, like, the human rights there?

Barr: So, the last two months have been a disaster, honestly, since President Biden announced that the U.S. was withdrawing unconditionally. The Taliban have really gone on the offensive and tried to take over as many areas of the country as they can. It’s been really clear, from the way they behaved in those areas, that they haven’t changed at all since 2001. So everything you read about before 2001, about how they treated women, not allowing women out of the house without male family members escorting them, not allowing women and girls to go to school, not allowing women to work. All of that is happening again. That doesn’t mean that the US military should have stayed forever, or even that the US military should have stayed longer. But I think that the way that U.S. government has behaved is sort of as if they don’t really care what happens. They didn’t really do any planning or think very much about, you know, what the immediate consequences would be or what the long-term consequences would be, or what this would mean for women’s rights. And so I found that really frustrating.

Brollini: What would you say to people who think that, you know, this issue doesn’t really affect them too much because Afghanistan is such a faraway place?

Barr: Well, you know, we pay taxes, we vote. So when our government invades another country, drops bombs on another country, that’s our decision too, you know? We paid for that invasion, we paid for those bombs, we elected those politicians. So it’s not that far away, in a way. And one of the things that really gets me is that it’s been 20 years since the Taliban were pushed out of power. And in those 20 years, a whole generation of young women and girls have grown up, thinking that they were gonna have freedom and be able to study and be able to work and walk down the street if they wanted to. And thinking that, you know, this dark time during the Taliban period was a sad story that they heard from their mother and from their grandmother that would never happen again. And now it is happening again. And it’s our actions, as Americans that, you know, created this sequence of events and I don’t see how we can feel like, what’s happening to those girls and young women has nothing to do with us. 

Brollini: What do you wish that people here knew about the war, the U.S.  involvement, how that impacts the region and the world?

Barr: I think when you picture a war on the other side of the world, it’s easy to not really imagine humans there, you know? You just imagine bombs rolling all the time and things blowing up. But there are also people who are trying to feed their families or, you know, who have a big exam that they’re studying for or who applied for a job and are waiting to find out whether they got it or not. The way that families are trying to live in Afghanistan is actually not that different from how families are trying to live in Juneau or anywhere else in the U.S. We need to have compassion for those families the same as we would for the one across the road, you know?

Lyndsey Brollini

Local News Reporter

I bring voices to my stories that have been historically underserved and underrepresented in news. I look at stories through a solutions-focused lens with a goal to benefit the community of Juneau and the state of Alaska.

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