There are many factors that contribute to Afghanistan's culture of violence and one of the least understood, yet significant causes is the behavior of school teachers. For generations, the overwhelming majority of Afghan teachers, poorly educated and not trained in more modern methods, practice corporal punishment in the classroom - hitting, abusing and intimidating school children. Such acts are not confined to male teachers as beatings of girls by women are almost as commonplace. Most remarkably, these horrible practices are generally supported by parents who believe that children need to be harshly disciplined in order to learn respect for elders and behave responsibly in class. After all, that is how they were brought up.
In schools throughout Afghanistan these practices are ingrained in the culture and have a huge, unintended influence on Afghan youth. Many children who suffer abuse by teachers; especially at an early age, become bullies or join gangs, taking out their hurt and anger on other children, while giving them a false sense of status as kids to be feared and respected. Others will become more vulnerable to extremist viewpoints and groups as they grow older, motivated not so much by radical Islam, but revenge on how they were treated by their teachers.
When HTAC begins working with a new school, we typically find that anywhere between 85% to 90% of male and female teachers use aggressive tactics in their classrooms. Through intensive training and on-going coaching, we are able to shift the attitudes and behaviors of most of these same teachers to where almost 90% abandon corporal punishment within a 2-3 year period.
Mr. Abdul Rauf, a teacher in Afghanistan's Farah Province, describes his own transformation after completing HTAC's teacher training course. "When I was recruited to be a teacher in my village, I resorted to the same aggressive methods of corporal punishment I had experienced myself as a student since I knew of no alternative. In my case, our teacher used wooden sticks or shook us to make us sit still and listen. ILater, I was fortunate to participate in the new teacher training initiative and it has changed my entire perspective on the art of teaching and learning. I have gained skills in active learning and motivation; that it is far better and more productive to listen and encourage students than to beat or disregard them. It's better to spend time engaging students in exercises to help them learn the subject at hand and better prepare them for their exams. Since returning to my school and resuming teaching, many of my students have expressed their gratitude in how I've changed. They enjoy coming to class and are not afraid to ask questions. Most gratifying is hearing that they never forget the lessons they are learning and applying in class."
With your support, HTAC can continue reaching out to teachers like Mr. Rauf, who will in turn, positively influence thousands of Afghan students in his lifetime and help keep them from becoming aggressive and radicalized as adults.
When many people hear about Afghanistan's decades-old culture of violence and its effect on children, they're often surprised to learn that violence in the home is commonplace. They assume that most of this violence is caused by men, they are typically shocked to learn that women (mothers-in-law, aunts, older sisters) are responsible for physically aggressive behavior against wives and younger girls.
Nazi, a 7th grade girl, is just one of tens of thousands of Afghan girls who grew up in such an environment where she was subjected to harassment and physical abuse by her older sister and Aunt. Things were no better at school where Nazi was regularly tormented and threatened by a group of girls who ironically were victims of abuse in their own homes.
Nazi's fortunes began to change for the better when she enrolled in HTAC's peace education program. Living in an environment where fighting seemed to be the only solution for resolving conflicts or disputes, Nazi was fascinated to learn of multiple ways to mediate and reconcile basic differences without violent acts of aggression or threats.
Shy by nature, Nazi not only learned to role model these peaceful techniques in class, she surprised herself by volunteering to become a student peer mediator; part of a select group of students who step in and help mediate conflicts between students (typically occurring in the school yard), before they become violent.
One day the sister of a girl in Nazi's class hit another girl and the girl's gang of friends came to the class seeking revenge. Before any fighting broke out, Nazi intervened and successfully mediated the problem, getting the girls to calm down and helping them understand there was a better, more peaceful way to resolve their differences. The gang of girls who came to the class looking to fight felt better because Nazi made sure they were listened to and felt respected. The girl who had started the problem, realized her impact of her impulsive actions and apologized. When it all ended, there was a profound relief among the parties. They shook hands and promised to be more respectful and friendly to one another. Nazi felt empowered. She had made a difference.
Since then, Nazi has taken an even bigger step, teaching her family members about the lessons of peace and cooperation, and while things are not perfect, there has been a dramatic change in her household and much of the fighting has been replaced by expressing feelings and listening to one another.
Imagine what peace education can do if we could make this program available to thousands of other girls and boys, just like Nazi.
Young Afghan boys such as Mansoor, a student at Mirwais Mina High School in Jawzjan Province grew up in an environment where fighting and aggressive behavior seemed to be the only way to resolve conflicts. But after enrolling in HTAC's peace education class, Mansoor discovered there was a better way to get along in the world. When he observed two adult male neighbors beating one another, Mansoor bravely intervened and (at the risk of being injuried himself), used the skills he learned in class to mediate and resolve their conflict non-violently. After listening to Mansoor talk about the benefits of living peacefully, the two men regretted their action and apologized to one another.
HTAC is educating and empowering a new generation of Afghan youth, like Mansoor, to become peacemakers. Such efforts are having a profound impact in reducing fighting and aggressive behavior, not only in Afghan schools, but in homes (where violence commonly occurs), and entire communities. By choosing to embrace peaceful, everyday living, Mansoor and thousands of Afghan boys each year are rejecting a culture of violence and are no longer vulnerable to extremist elements.
Most stories we hear about violence coming out of Afghanistan describe suicide bombings, roadside attacks or firefights between the Taliban and NATO or Afghan forces. What typically goes underreported is the everyday violence that occurs in communities between neighbors and family members and it is most frequent in the less-educated, more conservative regions of the country where a culture of violence and aggression has existed for generations.
Guzal is a 12th grade girl, and one of 900 students who enrolled in HTAC's peace education program in Jouzjan Province, a region in norhtern Afghanistan. In class, Guzal learned about the fundamental principles of peace and took particular interest in non-conflict resolution and mediation; concepts she had never heard of before, but she found them interesting. Little did Guzal know, she would soon need to use these new skills to prevent a horrible tragedy from happening.
During the course of the school year, Guzal's grandfather (who owned a house in good condition on a reasonably-sized plot of land), passed away, leaving the property unclaimed. A furious conflict erupted between Guzal's step grandmother and her uncle. The grandmother wanted to pass on the house and land to her step-children while the uncle insisted the house was his. As their back-and-forth argument escalated, her uncle threatened to kill Guzal's step-grandmother.
Guzal, relying on her non-violent conflict resolution and mediation skills that she learned in class, interceded. As Guzal tells the story, she stoood between her raging uncle and step-grandmother, explaining that killing one another would not resolve things; that there was a better way. After a tense half-hour, she convinced them to take their matter to court and resolve the problem in a fair, proper manner.
During the proceedings, Guzal, acting in a neutral manner, helped both her uncle and step-grandmother explain their case to the judge. The judge divided the property legally and fairly to the satisfaction of both parties. When it was over, Guzal's uncle (overcome with emotion), apologized to Guzal's step-grandmother for his harsh behavior and both of them hugged Guzal, thanking her for mediating their conflict.
When Guzal finished telling HTAC her story, there was a contented smile on her face. She had learned about peace and a tool she could carry with her for the rest of her life.
HTAC recognizes that teaching Afghans about peace and cooperation must involve not just schools, but entire communities. That is why we are investing in educating and training local community leaders and citizens in developing conflict resolution and peace building skills so they can work out their differences in non-confrontational ways while establishing trust and cooperative relationships.
Working with local leaders and other influential citizens, HTAC peace building initiatives in selected regions of the country have helped reduce violence in homes (especially in more rural areas of the country), fighting between neighbors, and have reduced broad-scale aggression between communities.
By giving leaders respect while introducing methods of basic mediatiation and conflict resolution (using many of the same principles their children learn in schol), we are beginning to see local communities embrace the benefits of peaceful everyday living and begin to reject violence, physical aggression and/or threatening behavior.
A major part of HTAC's peace building plan is teaching male leaders to become more comfortable allowing more local women to join local councils and participate in decision-making for their community. This not only helps protect women's rights and gives them a voice, but the presence of women creates a safer, more trusting environment for peace building to occur.
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