Stop extremism. Teach Afghan kids to embrace peace

 
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Guzal, peace advocate
Guzal, peace advocate

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.

community peace building
community peace building

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. 

Afghan youth embracing peace
Afghan youth embracing peace

When Help the Afghan Children decided to introduce its peace education program to 3,000 students at 8 middle schools and high schools in the Paghman District of Afghanistan, fighting and other forms of aggressive behavior were rampant.  During a one-month period prior to the launch of the new program, an astounding 2,848 (separate) incidences of fighting among boys as well as girls were observed, an average of about 142 per day.

Not surprising, our educational team also found that almost 90% of the teachers at these schools were routinely using counter-productive corporal punishment practices in the classroom (hitting, yelling and abusing the students as a way to make them pay attention and learn).  Sadly, most all of these teachers had experienced corporal punishment themselves as students.  Without knowing any better, they had grown up believing this was the acceptable way to motivate children.

Change takes time, but by the end of the first school year, we began to see some positive signs. Corporal punishment was still a significant problem, but now, over 30% of the Paghman teachers were consistently role modeling positive behaviors in the classroom and no longer hitting their students. Through our continuous training, these teachers learned that establishing a safe environment for students to learn was a far better way to motivate them.  Out on the school yards, Incidences of fighting and harassment were still high, but the  monthly average had been reduced by over 32% from nine months earlier.  While all students were attending peace education classes, HTAC had identified and begun training older students (and former bullies) who had embraced the values of peace and were no longer fighting and tormenting other children.  Now, as student peer mediators, the older kids were establishing themselves as new role models for the others.

Our team was encouraged by these modest gains, but our goal was to fundamentally change attitudes and  create a new culture where teachers and students would reject aggressive forms of behavior and embrace the principles of peace and cooperation.  In  year two, we began to see breakthroughs.  Over 62% of all teachers had abandoned corporal punishment altogether.  Meanwhile, fighting and bullying had been reduced by over 63%. and is dropping steadily.  Through teacher peer pressue and continued coaching, we expect up to 90% of the school's 441 teachers to be role-modeling positive behaviors in the classroom.  Out in the school yard, students are commonly using non-violent conflict resolution techniques (learned in class) to peacefully resolve their differences.  Remarkably, many students who would fight one another have become close friends - such is the power of peace.

peace education in action
peace education in action

For years, significant barriers have prevented any meaningful effort in providing much needed peace education to millions of deserving Afghan youth.  Because there has not been a clear directive and strategy about peace education from Afghanistan's Ministry of Education, many organizations working in Afghanistan have continued to pursue their individual peace education programs and initiatives without much coordination.  Despite the good intentions of these organizations, peace education is not delivered and taught in a consistent manner.

All of that is beginning to change, now that HTAC's is piloting Afghanistan's first national school-based peace education curriculum.  Our initiative, endorsed by the Ministry's Curriculum Department represents months of intensive research and development where our team of educators has redesigned HTAC's (already successful) peace education program, including a complete curriculum for Afghan public schools, grades 7 through 12.

Within the last 6 months, the new curriculum has been developed and translated into the two major languages of Afghanistan; Dari and Pashto.; several school sites in Jouzjan Province (one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces) have been targeted to receive the new curriculum; teachers at these schools have been trained; parents (of enrolled students) have received orientations; and the new program was launched in June of 2013.

The success of this pilot and the final approval of the curriculum by the Ministry will signal and major breakthrough, allowing the eventual delivery of peace education throughout Afghanistan, impacting an estimated 4 million deserving boys and girls.    

peace education helps girls and women
peace education helps girls and women

In a highly conservative, male-dominated society like Afghanistan, women and girls are often treated like second-class citizens.  Most everyone is painfully familiar with stories of how the Taliban treated women and prevented girls from attending school during their rule, however, even today, when girls and women have the right to attend school, seek jobs, vote, and become productive citizens, there remain many regions of the country where girls and women are routinely harassed, hit and abused by boys and men without a second thought.

HTAC's peace education and conflict resolution programs in schools and local communities are working to stop this cycle of abuse by educating boys and men that treating girls and women with honor and respect is not only consistent with the teachings of Islam, but demonstrates real strength (for males) and is beneficial for the community as a whole.

Our school program helps boys (who have often been the victims of violence and bullying themselves), deal with their anger and fear, learn how to forgive others, build self-esteem, and teach them the values of peace and cooperation.  A key element  is teaching boys to respect girls and women; that as males, they have a special responsibility to honor, respect their rights and to protect them from harassment or abuse by other boys and even men.

In the community, we often begin by educating and gaining the support of local male leaders to not only to honor and respect women, but also help them understand how women can contribute to a more peaceful, cooperative community as a whole by providing their unique perspectives; that there is value in allowing women to participate in community meetings and become decision-making partners along with men.

The educational process is sometimes long and there are no quick solutions, however (for initiatives lasting over a year), HTAC has seen a steady, consistent reduction of harassment and abuse (against girls and women) in schools, homes and communities compared to orginal baseline results.  In addition, there are positive indicators of greater cooperation between men and women, increased involvement of women in local community affairs, reduced aggressive conflict between families and more stabilized communities.

HTAC is especially gratified to see many boys and men (former abusers of girls and women) become some of our strongest advocates for the protection of women and their rights.

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Project Leader

Stephen Perlman

Consultant, HTAC
Fairfax, Virginia United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Stop extremism. Teach Afghan kids to embrace peace