THE VOTING IN Afghanistan is over, but the outcome of last week's elections is still unknown. Leaders are in the midst of a fierce debate about the validity of the results, and the country continues to find itself in the middle of a war zone. Beyond the political debate, another growing concern has emerged: the diminishing rights of Afghan women.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of eating lunch with 200 Afghan women who have formed a local association here in the Bay Area.

Fremont has the largest concentration of Afghans living in America. Every week, these ladies gather for fun, food and friendship. They also learn about good health and nutrition. But mainly, they meet to chat, laugh and pray.

As I looked around the room, I knew every woman had a story to tell of her journey to America and the different life she now lived, one she had never envisioned as a young girl growing up in Afghanistan. An elderly lady shared with me how her heart hurts for the women in her homeland. She said that many in her community are sending help back to relatives and friends.

"We want those women never to forget that we love them and want to help them as much as we can," she told me.

The lives of women and girls throughout Afghanistan have changed dramatically since 2001 when the United States ousted the Taliban government there.

A decade ago, girls were not allowed to attend school.

Today, millions of young women are getting an education and even others have climbed the political ladder to elected office, something virtually unheard of when the Taliban controlled the country.

Many women's organizations have flourished in the newfound freedom, helping women and their families navigate the justice system and participate in literacy and health education programs.

However, in recent months, there has been an accelerated Taliban resurgence in several areas of the country, and many development organizations, such as World Vision, are concerned that the strides made in the past few years could be eroded.

I traveled to Afghanistan in June to see firsthand the challenges that these brave women face and to learn more about what we as Americans can do to help. The two weeks spent there were not what I expected. The country I saw was not the one reported on the nightly news, but a place of kindness and genuine hospitality. Yes, it was somewhat dangerous, dusty and hot, but, above all, I felt relaxed and welcomed as I listened and began to understand what these families, in particular the women and girls, suffered.

U.N. statistics show that Afghanistan is the second worst place in the world for a woman to be pregnant or in labor (only Sierra Leone fares worse).

UNICEF found that a woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes, and one in four children does not live to their 5th birthday.

Early marriage, compounded with a severe shortage of female doctors and nurses, means that many girls are dying in their teens. According to Save the Children's State of the World's Mothers report, fewer than 15 percent of births are attended by skilled medical personnel.

Yet, despite these challenges, organizations like World Vision are reviving a decades-old profession: midwifery. These mostly young, single women working at small, ill-equipped regional hospitals receive training and support as midwives. I saw young women full of pride and quiet confidence as they tended to new mothers and babies.

Midwifery is a much-needed profession in a culture that dictates that laboring mothers should only be cared for by female staff. Without properly trained midwives, many of these women struggle through child birth without adequate medical care. Today, midwifery is inspiring this younger generation of women to pursue their education and take an important place in their community as health workers. I visited one school where 16-year-old girls told me with joyful laughter about their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers and journalists.

Everywhere I went, women asked me for sewing machines, fabric, seeds, farming equipment and books, but no one asked me for a handout. Life is tough in central Afghanistan. People are hungry and thirsty, but I was struck by the dignity of the many impoverished families I met.

Since returning home, and meeting the Afghan ladies in Fremont who are so passionate about helping these remarkable women and their families, I feel certain that we have a unique opportunity to make a difference together.

There is no debating that a free and fair democracy in Afghanistan is a vital step in the right direction for the beleaguered country, but let's make sure the women — and the continuing urgency for their education and improved maternal health — don't get forgotten in the process.

Mason works with Women of Vision, a group within World Vision, an international Christian relief and development organization. She has devoted her life to being a voice for suffering women and children and travels the world on humanitarian missions.