How an Afghan veteran has used her training for marathons to help women to empower their community

This week’s “Women’s Stories” follows Erin Hamlin, the world champion luger and world’s highest-ranking wheelchair athlete, as she competes against men in the World Cup

Emily Pedersen’s occupation may not seem like something to bring the whole family together, but she has made it her life’s mission to do so, and create hope for women in her community.

“The question is, who are these women that I’m trying to help? Who are these women who need help? And why do these women need help?” said Pedersen in The New York Times Magazine recently.

Fully formed in high school, she pursued her passion for triathlons and half-marathons. She participated in the U.S. Olympic training program in College Park, Md., at age 17, by her own choice and by contributing to her family’s financial troubles. After her first training trip to the United Arab Emirates, she and a companion spent a year together living and training on the back of a motorcycle — a choice that helped her to gain traction in the local racetrack.

“The biggest thing I learned from my time in the UAE was that life was so easy there,” she said. “To find a place and the time to train for a year without really enjoying the opportunities would be a little disconcerting.”

Pedersen has used her involvement with UNICEF since finishing her high school years and transitioned her charity work into the Malalanka Foundation, a women’s empowerment and training group focused on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

“You have a foundation like Malalanka, where you spend a lot of time teaching people to have healthy kids, good hygiene, and good health,” said Pedersen. “And that takes a lot of teaching, and a lot of time.”

She frequently walks the streets of Islamabad with young children to spread awareness of this type of work and motivate young women to take charge of their future and the future of their family. She plans to use her name and philanthropy to further her advocacy work through the Women’s Open Tournament and the Girls’ Open Tournament for girls ages 12 to 18.

But the path to her current role as a goodwill ambassador for Malalanka has been difficult.

“It’s definitely a weight,” she said. “Because you’re here in Pakistan and in Kabul. You have to try to balance the two different sides of life. You have to go from thinking, wow, I’m playing at the Emirates golf course at eight in the morning, to thinking, wow, I’m being invited to visit Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria, which are all incredibly dangerous places.

“So then I have to start thinking, OK, well, how do I do two days of golf and one day in Afghanistan? I have to find a way of balancing between that and also creating a more comprehensive plan to what it is that we’re trying to achieve in the community.”

Learn more about how Pedersen balances her passion for sport and charity, and how she’s working to bring similar programs to communities worldwide, in “Women’s Stories,” produced by Nicole Yang and Paige L. Fidler.

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