AIL recently received an update from Hafisa, a young woman that had taken classes at a Women’s Learning Center in rural Herat, Afghanistan. As a teenage girl, Hafisa began going to the WLC in her village where she became literate and learned to sew. In all of her classes, the teachers talked about human rights, peace, health and leadership, emphasizing that anyone can be a leader, even if in a small way.
After graduating from the center, Hafisa was married and moved away. Hafisa’s sewing skills quickly made her popular in her new village with many people bringing her dresses for sewing. Soon, people in the village began asking her to open a center and teach other women to sew. Hafisa remembered the leadership lessons she learned at the AIL WLC in her village and knew that she could start a class.
Starting a center to teach women to sew is a fairly novel concept. At first, her family ignored the requests, but due to community persistence, Hafisa’s family eventually allowed her to open a center in her home. Now she uses one room of her house to teach a sewing class and has 40 students. She collects a fee from the students, and this income has helped to change her family’s economic situation. She is respected in her community and her family is proud of her. Whenever she goes to her own village to see her parents, she visits the AIL center and thanks AIL for giving her the opportunity to be a useful person in her community. Not only did Hafisa learn to sew, she learned to be a leader and found that she could run a self-sufficient center.
Some of the stories AIL hears from women are about little things that make a big difference for the individual woman. We have one such example from a woman studying literacy in one of AIL’s centers. When asked if she had a particularly happy memory that came from learning to read, she replied, “Yes. Before I would go places and could not read anything, but now I can. I went to the doctor with my sister-in-law and I read the name of the doctor for her. There was a woman there who could not read and asked me if I knew which doctor was the heart doctor. I read the board with the names of the doctors until I found the heart doctor and guided the woman to the correct doctor. She prayed for me. I was very happy and it is an unforgettable memory for me.”
In 2008 the Afghan Institute of Learning supported 46 learning centers in Herat, Mazar, Bamiyan and Kabul, Afghanistan and in Peshawar, Pakistan. These centers served a total of 23,750 Afghan women, men and children in classes ranging from pre-school to university students. These centers have had a huge impact on the lives of the students since the students have no other alternatives for receiving a quality education.
During 2008, one of AIL's WLC's reached a milestone-- its first class of girls studying in the 9th grade. This is a truly remarkable story as this group of initially illiterate girls from a very traditional, rural, conservative area in Afghanistan began studying with AIL 7 years ago and have continued their studies until now.. Here is one of the girl's stories:
"I am from a poor and narrow-minded family that does not allow their daughters to go outside the home to study. My father has always told me that he did not have enough money to pay the fees to send me to school; he barely had enough money to feed me and pay our rent. Besides, he said, if he allowed me to go to school my relatives and neighbors would say that he was not zealous enough since no one allows their daughters to go to school. One day my neighbor told me that there was a center that teaches women and girls and that you can learn a great deal from this school without paying any fees. At first I was really excited until I realized that I was 13 and might have sit in a lower class with younger students. When I was finally allowed to go to the center, I saw that many older women and girls were attending the school. Now I am happy because I can read, and write. I pray 5 times a day to those who open centers like this for women and older girls."
Since the establishment of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) the goal has been to help women improve their situation in life. Following is a story from one of AIL’s Women’s Learning Centers (WLC) that exemplifies the changes that AIL can make in Afghan women’s lives.
When AIL student Rizagul was a young girl, her father was put in prison by the Taliban regime where he was tortured and eventually died leaving behind Rizagul as well as her young brother and her unwell, elderly mother.
Four years ago, Rizagul came to one of AIL’s rural WLC’s in Herat province and began taking various classes, including literacy and sewing. After two years at the center, she was able to gain admission to a regular school at grade level 4, a feat which might have taken 4 years in a regular school, if it happened at all. Even after gaining admission to the regular school, Rizagul continued to take extra courses after school at the center. Unfortunately, the center was closed due to the poor security situation in the region and Rizagul could no longer take the extra courses she had come to enjoy.
A short time ago, an AIL teacher saw Rizagul at a wedding ceremony in their village. Rizagul could not control her emotions and tears rolled down her cheeks as she told her teacher, “You and AIL were the best thing for me, and I will never, never forget your encouragement and all of the hard work that you did for me.” She added, “I can now read in Arabic, I know how to sew and I am a student in grade 6. What I am is because of the AIL center.”
She also said that she is sewing dresses to make money for her family and that she has so much business that she has to turn some people away. She is making a good living, and is able to improve her family’s economic situation with her sewing skills.
Rizagul also told the teacher, “With the advice that the center supervisor wrote in my ‘memory notebook’ (try to learn, work hard for a better future and pray for your future) I am sure that I will go toward a better future.”
From January to June of 2008 the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) has supported 37 Educational Learning Centers (ELC’s) and Women’s Learning Center’s (WLC’s) in 5 provinces of Afghanistan and in Peshawar, Pakistan serving 11,530 Afghan men, women and children. 65% of those served were female. The level of class run by the center varies from pre-school to university students.
AIL has also supported 3 health clinics in Herat and Kabul, Afghanistan. These three clinics have seen 63,345 patients during the first 6 months of 2008, the majority of whom are women and children. 9,347 of those seen were reproductive health patients. The clinic vaccinated 17,977 women and children during the first 6 months of 2008. The clinics also provide health education seminars and workshops to women. From January to June 2008 31,563 women have taken part in health education workshops.
Many of the women that take classes from AIL’s ELC’s and WLC’s do so in order to learn to read or write, support their family or to learn skills that will help them to acquire a job.
Following is a story from a 28 year old women who graduated from one of AIL’s tailoring classes that shows the value of not only the tailoring program, but the center’s as a whole:
“When I was in Iran 2 years ago, I was concerned about what will happen to me when I return to my country. Would I be able to go in school or some educational center to be an educated person like Iranians? But when we came back to our country and moved to this village, after a short time, I found the AIL center and lots of women going and coming from this center. I felt that it is the best place for the improvement of women who want to learn some thing. I went there and enrolled in literacy, tailoring and holy Quran classes. I have attended these three classes in one center and was very happy because every day, I met at least 400 women from my community. And the quality of this center was very good because the teachers were updated by AIL through providing seminars and training. So the methods they taught were the best and students learned very fast. Today after 2 years, I have completed the 5th grade of literacy, Holy Quran and the sewing course. I feel I am very lucky to have this opportunity to learn these all things and now I can work to support my family. I can read the magazine, newspaper and also I can help my children in their lessons and home work.”
A young girl named Parmila says, “I am really happy with the Women’s Learning Center that I attend. It is a good and safe educational environment for females. Before the establishment of this center here, the society of this area was against the girl's education. But fortunately the center has done a great deal to change their minds. My parents have not allowed me to go to school and it was very hard for me that my rights have not given to me. So when my parent saw that many women and girls go to the Women’s Learning Center without any problem and all the teachers there are female, they allowed me to go to this center. After some time they took another positive step and told me to get admission in the regular school too. Now I am in grade 7th and I understand if the Women’s Learning Center had not been established here, I and many other girls would remain illiterate people in the society. If that were to happen, this society would never change their mind regarding their girls’ education.”
Zareen a student in the literacy class said: “When I got engaged I was in 3rd class and when I got married I was just 16 years old after that my husband continued his education but his parents didn’t give me permission to continue my classes. I argued many times with my husband to get permission from your parents for me. After long time, they gave me permission to go and I went to Majoba Herawi center. Now I am in class 8th and I am very happy to be able to solve my and my family problems. Now my husband is in London and I can write letters to him. My mother in law says to me thanks to God you have become educated and can solve our family problems. Now all my husband’s family members take advice from me as an educated woman to help solve their problems.”
Here is the story of a woman who came to AIL’s clinic after struggling to become pregnant for 25 years: “Habiba came to the clinic 9 months ago; and said that she had amenorrhea. I referred her to the clinic laboratory for a pregnancy test. The result of lab was positive. I congratulated her but she was upset because 25 years ago she got married and had been pregnant 17 times but unfortunately all of them miscarried. I did not think that this pregnancy would be full term as before. Again I referred her to complete all the tests and fortunately all the results were normal. She had a stepdaughter. I give hope to her that this time she would have a safe delivery and her own baby. I advised her to have monthly visits at the clinic. She was given Healthy Mom and Ferfolic. When she passed the seventh month of pregnancy she suffered from hypertension and pedal edema. I referred her to the laboratory for urine analysis test. The result of her examination was proteinurea; I took management of her. Weekly she has come to the clinic for follow up; her blood pressure was under control. A night she was going to have delivery and her family took her to the hospital for delivery. She gave birth 25 years of marriage. Two days later she came to the clinic with her baby; she was very happy and appreciated me and services of the Imam Shish Nur clinic. I was thrilled to see her with her baby. It was one of my best memories. She said I can't believe that after all this time I have a child.”
The mission of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) is to empower all Afghans who are vulnerable and in need by expanding their education and health opportunities and by fostering self-reliance and community participation. AIL takes a holistic approach to its work with the goal of developing the overall health and education capacity of Afghan individuals and communities.
Because of the years of war, the educational system in Afghanistan has greatly deteriorated. The literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world with an estimated 31% of Afghan males and 15% of Afghan females literate. The situation is particularly acute for women and girls because of the banning of public education for females under the Taliban. Many teenage girls and boys and women were either not allowed to attend schools or had no opportunity to attend schools because of the fighting in Afghanistan. Many of the boys who went to school had a very poor education.
Faced with overwhelming needs from all sectors of the society, the Afghan government has opened schools and millions of children have now begun to continue their education. However, many older girls and boys, married girls and women are not allowed in the schools because of their age or their marital status.
To meet the educational needs of these older girls and boys and married women and in response to the requests of Afghan women, community leaders, and the Afghan government, AIL opened Women’s Learning Centers (WLCs) for women and girls and then Educational Learning Centers (ELCs) for females and males in Afghanistan. AIL was the first NGO to start Women’s Learning Centers (WLCs) in refugee camps in 2002 and soon after opened its first Educational Learning Centers (ELCs) in Afghanistan. WLCs and ELCs take a holistic approach and are designed to meet the multiple needs of Afghan women, girls and boys. Through the WLCs and ELCs that AIL supports, AIL offers preschool through university-level classes and trains teachers and administrators. In each of its centers, AIL also offers health and peace education and workshops that train women and older girls and boys to be leaders and to advocate for their basic human rights. The subjects of AIL center fast track classes presently include literacy (which includes reading, writing and math), sewing/tailoring, carpet weaving, English, computer, knitting, beautician training, math, chemistry, algebra, physics, trigonometry, Dari, Pushto, embroidery, calligraphy, art and Arabic. The goals of the students vary. Some students just want to learn to read and write. Others want to learn a skill so that they can earn money or make clothes for their family. Still others want to improve their knowledge of various subjects or learn English or computer skills to increase their chances of getting a job. Although the ages of students range from 8-65, about 70% of the students are between 15 and 25 and more than 75% of the students are between 10 and 25. Overall, 60% of the students are female. This, of course, varies with each new class and from center to center.
WLCs and ELCs are housed in homes in the community where the WLC/ELC is located. The community either donates the facility or rent is paid for use of the facility. Teachers come from the community. The women in the community decide if they want to meet in the morning or the afternoon or in both the morning or afternoon. Each class meets for an hour daily from Saturday through Thursday except for holidays. Although there are a few classes that have chairs and tables, most classes have a floor covering and a blackboard and other equipment pertinent to the class being taught (sewing machines, looms, etc.) and the students sit on the floor. Incorporated into the curriculum of each class is material on human rights, health and peace. The duration of the class varies depending on the subject. Beginning literacy, sewing, knitting and beautician classes are for 6 months. The duration of upper level classes in literacy depends on how fast the students study. The duration of other classes vary and, again, students can proceed at their own speed. Arabic classes usually require 8 months to 3 years. Carpet weaving usually requires 7 months to one year. It takes 5 to 6 months to finish a complete computer program—basic to advanced. One computer course usually takes 3 months. It takes 6 months to one year to complete calligraphy. Math classes are on-going and individualized to the students needs. Each level of English class is for 2½ to 3 months.
All of the classes are what AIL calls “fast track” classes. AIL had developed “fast track” classes during the time of the Taliban when AIL supported 80 underground home schools for over 3,000 girls in Afghanistan. Because the classes were multi-grade and because so many students were already behind their grade level, AIL developed a program whereby the students could study at their own pace. With the fall of the Taliban, most students wanted to learn as fast as possible. Thus, the majority of the educational classes offered through AIL WLCs and ELCs are “fast track” classes. What this means is that students study at a faster pace and greater intensity than students would in a regular school setting. Thus, for example, a literacy student will finish the first grade material in 6 months rather than 9 or 12 months. The literacy student can then either go on to a higher level, study another subject, or take a school placement test and mainstream into a government school at the student’s age level. Likewise, students who are weak in a particular subject, like math, can take a math class at one of AIL’s centers and study on an accelerated basis. This may be the subject which is holding the student back from joining her age group. By taking this class, she can then “challenge” the grade, take a test and progress to the next grade level. Skills training classes, such as tailoring, carpet weaving, embroidery or beauty shop classes are also “fast track” classes.
AIL is presently supporting WLCs and ELCs, which provide fast track classes, at 38 locations in five provinces of Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Through its centers, AIL now offers educational opportunities to 25,000 Afghan women and children annually. Additionally, basic health services are available to many center participants through AIL health clinics. Services include medical examinations, midwifery and nursing services, vaccinations, and health education about hygiene and the proper use of medicine. Of AIL’s 38 educational centers, 33 are Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). If a center is a CBO, it means that AIL did not actually start the center. Rather, the community decided that it needed a center, found a location, identified teachers and students and subjects that older girls and boys and women in their community wanted to study. The community members then came to AIL and asked for support for their center. AIL requires community participation from every project that it has. In the case of WLCs and ELCs, the community will either provide the building for the center or charge fees to the center to cover the costs. The overall security and running of the center is in the hands of the community.
AIL also places a great emphasis on training both teachers and administrators and has continued to expand its training programs. In addition to the training that AIL does for the government and NGOs, AIL trains all of the teachers and administrators in its centers. AIL has now trained over 12,000 teachers in pedagogy and subject matter seminars. AIL is continuing to offer its leadership and human rights seminars to women, government officials and NGO leaders and recently was asked to hold a training session for new members of parliament. Because of the need, AIL has developed new training material in management to build the capacity of government and NGO staff. In the last year, AIL has held management workshops for Ministry of Women’s Affairs staff in Kabul and Herat, for new parliamentarians, and for the staff of a number of NGOs and CBOs. The ultimate goal of the training for teachers is to improve the quality of education of the students and the goal of administrative training is to enable the community administrators to more effectively run their center and ultimately become self-sufficient.
Because AIL’s WLC/ELC program is a long term, holistic, capacity-building program, AIL continues to support centers until they have either reached their goals or become self-sufficient. Since it began this program, AIL has supported more than 100 centers. As centers become self-sufficient or close because needs have been met and as funding is available, AIL opens new centers.
AIL’s learning centers have been particularly important for Afghan women and girls. Often there are no girls schools in the communities where they live. Afghans are sometimes reluctant to send their females to schools and Afghan schools will not accept older girls or married women in beginning classes. AIL’s centers, because they are grassroots and started and run by the community have been very important for the education of Afghan females because families will allow their girls and women to go to these centers.
Presently, there are 6,713 women and girls studying in AIL centers.
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