Stop extremism. Teach Afghan kids to embrace peace

 
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The world was recently shocked and horrified over a video showing a mob of angry Afghan men beating to death and burning a 27 year old Afghan woman named Farkhunda who was accused of allegedly burning a Q'uran; a claim that was later proven false.  Sadly, in death, Farkhunda earned her 15 minutes of fame as the media, world leaders and others condemmed her brutal killing and for a brief moment, the plight of Afghan women became a news item.

Then, just as predictably, the media and the world moved on to the next big story and Farkhunda's death became an after-thought.  But the real tragedy is, thousands of Afghan women and girls are beaten, abused, raped and killed every year and no one knows their names. 

Despite constitutional laws designed to protect women and girls, beatings, abuses, harassments and deaths are commonplace throughout Afghanistan, from small remote villages to large urgan cities like Kabul.  As a male dominated society, most Afghan women are treated as commodities and second class citizens.  In many homes women are beaten (not just by their husbands), but by other female family members.  Boys quickly learn that they are favored over their sisters.  This significantly impacts their attitudes about girls and women as they grow older.  Many girls who reach puberty are pulled from school and forced into early marriages with men who often abuse them and prevent them from working, voting and participating in local civic affairs, even though Afghanistan's Constitution gives women these rights.

HTAC's project of preventing violence against women and girls is changing attitudes and behaviors of men and communities in targeted regions of the country where we work.  Our project has four objectives:  1) teach and motivate male leaders to respect and value women as community partners by including and involving them in local councils; 2) educate and train parents and other adults on the use of non-violent conflict resolution methods in homes, thereby reducing abuse and threatening behavior toward women and girls; 3) educate Afghan boys in schools to reject violence and adopt the principles of peaceful, everyday living, which has historically reduced fighting and aggressive behaviors; and 4) educate women and girls about their constitutional rights and protections and empower them to take more active roles in local community affairs.

Our task will not be easy and we face enormous challenges, but through education and your help, we can begin to transform a culture that moves from violence to one of peace and cooperation.  If we want to honor women like Farkhunda and thousands like her who have died violent deaths, this is a good way.  Lets make sure that girls (like 7th grader Atifa shown here), will grow up in a safe environment so they can lead productive, fulfilled lives,.

HTAC primary school peace room
HTAC primary school peace room

In rural Southern Afghanistan, the dark classroom with only one small window was so hot and stuffy that the 38 little girls could hardly breathe.  There were only 9 desks and a few long chairs that had to be shared among the young students.  Their teacher was trying to convince them how lucky they were to have the opportunity to study and learn, now that Afghanistan's Constitution decreed that girls as well as boys had the right to an education.  She was talking about their bright future, the possibilities, and the many ways they could help Afghanistan when they finished their schooling.

The girls listened quietly.  Their eyes were filled with questions, worries, and doubts.  They knew that just the night before their Principal received a night letter from an unknown group who warned him to shut down their school or they would kill him.  They were not sure if they would come tomorrow, or their school building would be standing.  And yet, here they were, eager to learn as much as they could.  Their thirst for knowledge was far greater than their fear.  These little girls and their teacher clearly understood what was at stake; it wasn't just their own personal lives, but the life and soul of Afghanistan itself.  They knew that without education there could be no chance for real lasting security, prosperity and a true civil society.

As U.S. and Western forces wind down their operations and turn over security to the (still fragile) Afghan national army, a furious war continues to rage in many parts of the country.  This war is much more complex than fighting the ever-resilient Taliban; It's a war between two fundamental philosophies- those who preach and teach extremist views that glorify fighting, violence and lack of tolerance for women, girls and ethnic minorities; versus those who believe and practice peaceful, everyday living and to respect others.  These extremists can be found, not just among the ranks of the Taliban, but in mosques, local communities; even schools and homes- where ignorance and fear of change reigns.

Help the Afghan Children is fighting this war by trying to educate impressionable youth, re-educate religious and community leaders about how peace and tolerance are hallmarks of Islam, re-training teachers to abandon corporal punishment practices, and helping parents create warm, nurturing home environments for their children and to support the education of their daughters.

As it turned out, those responsible for posting the night letter at the school Principal's home was a radicalized gang of young Afghan men who wanted to emulate the Taliban.  Fortunately, the local religious and community leaders as well as many parents rose up to defend the Principal and the school; authorities arrested the young men and the girls continued with their studies.  HTAC is committed to supporting these and other communities who yearn for peace and tolerance.   

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.

Miss Nazi 7th grader
Miss Nazi 7th grader

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.

Mansoor, peacemaker
Mansoor, peacemaker

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.

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Project Leader

Stephen Perlman

Consultant, HTAC
Fairfax, Virginia United States

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Map of Stop extremism. Teach Afghan kids to embrace peace