Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism

by Central Asia Institute
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Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism
Girls' Education: The Antidote to Terrorism

In Afghanistan, one of the most significant gains made in the past two decades has been the increase in girls’ access to education.

While the focus has been on the numbers of girls gaining access, little has been said about the change in people’s attitudes toward girls’ education.

Attitudes toward education have changed over the years. There are numerous examples of Afghan men donating their land to build schools for girls, fathers walking several miles a day to accompany their daughters to school, and fathers demanding better education for their children—sons and daughters.

Youth in urban locations enjoy greater access to information and better-quality education. In most rural areas, however, people are still struggling to give their children access to quality education. The reasons are multiple, but the main barriers include lack of schools and threats against teachers and female students by the Taliban and ISIS.

Afghan children are thirsty for education and so are their parents, including in some strictly conservative areas. Khost province is an example of how progress is happening.

Early this year, Khost, a conservative province and the birthplace of the leader of the Haqqani Network, a militant group, made news headlines when elders, religious actors, and youth (all male) from Shamal district issued a statement in which they called on district residents to send their children to school. “Those disobeying the order will be fined 100,000 Afghani ($1,300).”

Afghan Village

Lemar, a local business¬man said, “It is not so much about the amount, it is about publicly shaming those who disobey the elders’ deci¬sion as, in addition to the ‘fine,’ the violator will also face isolation and other restrictions.”

It took several years of diplomacy and advocacy by multiple factions to finally get the elders’ approval and support for the education of both girls and boys. Women of all ages and backgrounds have been the silent, per¬sistent advocates for educa¬tion. Young educated men in the province, Afghans who had migrated to oth¬er countries like Iran and Pakistan and later returned to Afghanistan, and young Khosti men who worked as laborers in gulf countries also have been pushing for access to education for girls and boys.

This is how it all started, but not where the move¬ment ended. Last year, the elders from several villag¬es within Shamal district reached out to the govern¬ment-appointed administra¬tive governor of the district demanding financial and material support to build a school. The district governor promised to build a school with a few conditions: Land had to be donated by locals and people had to take re¬sponsibility for ensuring the security of the school build¬ing as well as the security of the students, teachers, and school officials.

On January 24, 2020, some 100 people—including 50 tribal elders, 40 youth, and 10 religious actors—in the presence of the district governor of Shamal, held a jirga, or assembly, to discuss the need for more schools in the district. After several hours of debate about the importance of education and the link between education, economic prosperity, and the eradication of poverty, the district leaders signed a letter pledging their support to facilitate education for all children.

Knowing that villagers would prioritize boys’ schooling over that of girls, advocates for equal education decided to establish an informal school for girls. Since its opening, 250 girls have enrolled. The students are taught by volunteers, all of whom are men, as there are no female teachers in the district. The next step is to register the school as an official government-run school.

Since the agreement became public early this year, prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, several women’s rights activists and groups launched a door-to-door campaign to raise awareness about the importance of education for girls. Zainab, one of several women’s rights activists who traveled to various villages, spoke with men and women, encouraging them to send their girls to school. Zainab said that she had prepared for the worst. She didn’t know what the reaction would be from the public.

Tentschool teacher and student

“The support I received from families was unbelievable,” she said. “The strongest advocates are grandmothers. There has been no hesitation for girls’ education. Their main concern is a lack of female teachers and easily accessible school buildings.” In unfamiliar neighborhoods, the elders accompany women like Zainab who are making house calls.
“I’ve received so many calls from men, even from those Afghans who work in gulf countries, asking me to talk to their families to allow their female family members to attend school and literacy courses. People are hungry for education,” said Zainab.

Afghan women have fought hard to get the support of their families and communities to continue their education as well as to be able to earn an income. The hard-won successes from the last two decades, however, could be under threat if the Taliban gain too much power in the peace talks. Girls’ education and women’s rights, in particular, are under threat. Women make up more than 50% of the population, and youth (people below the age of 25 as defined by the UN Population Fund) make up 63%. Their needs and concerns must be taken into consideration by the Afghan government and the Taliban in any agreement over a political settlement.

There are some in the international community who claim that the Taliban have changed and if returned to power, either in full or in part, they will not impose harsh restrictions on girls and women like they did when they were in power in the early 90s. As much as Afghans want to believe that, they do not share the same level of optimism expressed by those in the international community.

As recently as this August, and despite promises to permit girls to be educated, the Taliban prevented some 200 female high school graduates from Mah-e-May and Nusay districts of Badakhshan province from taking the university entrance exam. The exam determines which students are admitted to public universities.

The students were traveling to Shekay district where the exam was taking place. The Taliban threatened to impose a fine in the amount of 40,000 Afghani (equivalent to $520) on each student if they attempted to participate in the exam.

For the next several days, the female high school students, along with their male relatives, staged protests against the Taliban’s action, demanding the government make an exception and allow those students who were prevented from taking the exam to take it at a new location on a different day. Eventually, the government relented and transported the students to Shaghanan district to take the exam.

The Taliban must understand that today’s Afghanistan is not the same as the country that they ruled in the 90s. Afghans today are willing to risk their lives for education and for the rights of women. If they truly wish to negotiate a sustainable peace, the Taliban must recognize and uphold the rights of all Afghan citizens and be willing to accept the inclusion of women and marginalized groups in the peace process.

WOMEN AND YOUTHS MUST HAVE A SAY IN THE PEACE PROCESS

In 2018, amid record levels of violence between the Taliban, the Afghan National Army, and U.S. troops, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked the Taliban to enter into peace talks with the government. The Taliban declined, but since that time there have been steps taken towards peace. These steps, including bilateral talks between the United States and the Taliban, have left Afghans feeling cautiously hopeful that the conflict, which began in 2001, might be drawing to a close. However, there are still many people harboring doubts. If the negotiations do result in peace, will it be sustainable or will the country be thrown back into the dark ages?

Education and women’s rights are two hot topics for Afghans. They want to ensure that if the Taliban is included in power-sharing or given decision-making authority, education and women’s rights will be protected. With mostly men negotiating, women are worried. They know that women, especially educated women, are important to the nation’s future and crucial in maintaining peace. “An educated mother will not allow her son to join terrorist and illegal armed groups. She will have more control over her children’s discipline than a mother who cannot read or write,” said Guljan, a female doctor from Zabul province. (Note: Her name has been changed to protect her identity.)

Guljan went on to describe why educated women and youth living in the provinces are more concerned about the return of the Taliban than women and youth living in Kabul. “I don’t think the Taliban will be as restrictive in the cities as they were in the 90s, as they know they will be watched by the media and the international community. But in the rural areas, they will intensify the implementation of their version of Sharia (Islamic law based on the teachings of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), and some in the conservative communities will most likely side with the Taliban when it comes to women’s rights.”

It’s taken a great deal of hard work to achieve so much progress in women’s rights and girls’ education over the past two decades. People’s long-held beliefs had to shift. Men and boys had to change their attitudes toward women and girls. Community members had to make demands and protest when their demands were denied. But all that progress could be lost in the blink of an eye if the Taliban regain power. That’s why it’s crucial for more communities, particularly in rural and remote areas, to promote education, just like they did in Khost province. And it’s also crucial for all of us to give these communities the resources and support they desperately need to succeed.

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When COVID-19 hit Central Asia in early April, the situation quickly escalated into a crisis. CAI responded quickly. We were in touch with our overseas partners daily to identify the most pressing needs of families and communities we’ve long served. Recognizing their vulnerability to the pandemic’s impacts, we moved fast to put together emergency programs to address food insecurity, the lack of PPE, and financial support for teachers who were suddenly without a salary when schools closed. We also worked to develop distance learning programs for children stuck at home with no access to books, computers, or the internet. New forms of support were put into place and existing ones modified to allow us to respond to the crisis at hand while staying true to our mission. All this was possible thanks to the steadfast support of our donors who showed extraordinary compassion and generosity at a challenging time.

 

Food packs feed thousands

 

Throughout the world COVID-19 has taken away jobs and income. Workers who rely on day labor to buy food for their families are especially vulnerable to food insecurity and hunger. We assembled ration packs with enough cooking oil, rice, sugar, lentils, salt, and black tea to help feed a family of seven for 15 days. To date 4,000 food ration packs have been distributed to impoverished families in the areas we serve.

 

PPE protects frontline workers

 

The lack of personal protective equipment was a huge issue from the start. We assembled hundreds of PPE kits containing an N95 mask, gloves, shoe covers, a body cover, goggles, and sanitizer, and distributed 340 PPE kits to health facilitiesAnother 9,250 surgical masks, 4,250 pairs of gloves, 425 bottles of sanitizer, and 912 extraction kits went to first responders.

PPE Packages
Salary support helps teachers and non-teaching staff pay rent and buy food

 

When the schools closed, teachers, support staff, and guards were suddenly without a job and without a paycheck. With COVID emergency funds we were able to pay the salaries of 188 teachers and 29 non-teaching staff members from 60 schools for the remainder of the school year (through May 2020). The 60 schools are located across six districts in areas served by CAI and our partners.

 

Better hygiene and sanitation when schools reopen

 

Looking to improve the conditions at schools once they reopen, we’ve taken advantage of empty buildings to make repairs and add facilities. Workers have repaired 24 washrooms and built 38 new latrine stalls. Access to hand-washing facilities is needed now more than ever to curb the spread of the virus when classes resume.

 

Children learn via radio and social platforms
Children learning

With schools closed and no clear indication of when it will be safe for them to reopen, children are at serious risk of falling behind in their studies. Of particular concern is a pattern seen in other disasters wherein girls who are unable to attend school for an extended period of time are less likely to re-enroll when classes resume. One way to prevent girls from dropping out is to keep the pattern of education and learning going.

Towards this end, CAI sponsored a distance-learning radio program that ran for six weeks, ending this summer. The program was broadcast on radio as well as shared on Facebook, YouTube, and other social platforms. The curriculum was designed to increase literacy and math skills for students in grades 1-3. Educational games focused on general knowledge and famous personalities; quizzes on health and hygiene added to the fun.

The radio program targeted 400,000 students ages 5-9 years. It consisted of 30 total episodes, with two subjects covered per episode. A similar distance-learning format with 40 episodes covering six subjects is planned for grades 4 and 5.

 

Printed materials help children learn at home
Printed Materials

With CAI support, a team of educators is developing student learning packets designed to build literacy and math skills for children in grades 1-3. Their teachers will receive tablets preloaded with an academic calendar, lesson planning tools, supplemental content from the distance-learning radio program, and assessment tools to measure student progress. More than 3,000 children and teachers are earmarked to receive the packets and tablets later this summer. We’re excited that despite the challenges that children continue to face while schools remain closed, distance learning is proving to be a viable, effective solution.

 

Looking ahead

 

With COVID cases surging in the region, schools will likely remain closed for the foreseeable future. Given the risk that children, especially girls, who experience gaps in their education are less likely to resume their studies, we’re exploring additional ways to continue to support remote learning. We’re looking at the feasibility of expanding distance-learning programs to more grade levels and possibly more geographic areas. Providing educational programming so that girls can continue to learn is one of the best ways to keep them—and their families—focused on staying in school.

Stay tuned for news about our next wave of innovative support in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, know that your steadfast support is bringing hope to thousands of families and children at a dark time, and allowing us to stand together with them to fight this global crisis. Thank you. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

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An Old School Transformed

In 1989, Kindergarten #5 was a brand-new building situated in the center of Khorog, a sleepy little mountain town nestled in the Pamir Mountains. Back then, Kindergarten #5 was a state-of-the-art facility, especially for such a small community, and recognized by the locals as the “the best kindergarten in town.”

Sadly, time hasn’t been kind to Kindergarten #5. With more than 300 children aged 2 to 5 passing through its halls each year the school experienced a lot of wear and tear. Eventually, it fell into disrepair. The walls and floors rotted, windows cracked, and the sewer system broke. The building became a hazard. Someone needed to intervene. That someone would be Mahbuba Qurbonalieva, director of Central Asia Institute Tajikistan (CAIT).

In 2014, Mahbuba heard how desperate parents and teachers were to renovate Kindergarten #5. She jumped at the chance to help. With the help of donors from around the world, Central Asia Institute Tajikistan has since repaired the school’s exterior, overhauled classrooms, replaced broken windows, fixed the sewer system, renovated bathrooms and kitchens, installed a boundary fence, and much more. Today, after all of the improvements, Kindergarten #5 is hardly recognizable.

 

Read the full story here.

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Robert Thelen
Robert Thelen

If you’ve read Three Cups of Tea, you’re aware that Central Asia Institute was founded on the belief that sitting down with people and drinking tea together is the essential first step to accomplishing great things. Without those face-to-face exchanges, change is nearly impossible in that part of the world. Relationships of trust must be built before plans can be drawn for a new school, a teacher receives training, or a child walks into a classroom to begin her education.

In the spirit of our founding philosophy, Robert (Bob) Thelen, Central Asia Institute’s new director of international programs, journeyed to Afghanistan and Tajikistan in November to meet with our partners, visit schools, and listen and learn from our colleagues on the ground and the people we serve. Bob is a veteran to international development work. He’s lived and worked abroad for a good share of his career including three years with an international non-government organization (NGO) in Afghanistan.

Despite his familiarity with the region, the trip this fall had its share of adventure, beginning with the flight from Kabul into Ishkashim district, a remote province in the mountains of northern Afghanistan.

“We couldn’t travel by ground because the roads aren’t secure. There’s a commercial flight, but that’s also not safe. So we flew in a six-seater plane run by a company that flies NGO staff into hard-to-access locations. I sat in the co-pilot seat with oxygen tubes in my nose – we all had them in case the pilot needed to fly higher to avoid turbulence over the mountains. We landed on a short and bumpy dirt runway. There’s only one flight a week.” The time and risks involved in the journey underscored for Bob why support from Central Asia Institute is so needed. “These are places that don’t get a lot of attention from the central government or the international community because they’re so remote and marginalized.”

Read Robert's full report here

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Mah Jan creating beautiful clothing.
Mah Jan creating beautiful clothing.

As a young mother in Afghanistan, Mah Jan shared the same worries as millions of women around the world who lack access to paid work:

How can I earn money for myself and my family?

How can I ensure a brighter future for my children?

How can I support the women and girls in my community?

Mah Jan’s story is typical of girls born into poor, uneducated families in Central Asia. Her childhood years were difficult. Problems at home forced her to drop out of school in the seventh grade. She married very young and soon found herself with six children. She was expected to stay home, raise the children, and do the household chores. So Mah Jan made the only choice available to her; she put her dream of getting an education on hold.

On hold, but not forgotten.

Hope came alive again years later when, at the age of 38, Mah Jan enrolled in a literacy and vocational training program funded by Central Asia Institute. She spent nine months improving her literacy skills, then focused her attention on learning how to sew. Within six months, she had completed a tailoring course and was hired by the program staff to teach tailoring to other students.

Read Mah Jan's Full Story Here

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Central Asia Institute

Location: Bozeman, MT - USA
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Twitter: @Peacethroughed
Project Leader:
Janell Arneson
Bozeman, MT United States

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