Breaking Down Barriers to Education

by Central Asia Institute
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Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
Gul Naz writes on the chalkboard
Gul Naz writes on the chalkboard

For eight-year-old Gul, the thawing of winter in her remote Afghan village meant more than just warmer days ahead—it meant a new adventure!  She was delighted to learn that she had been promoted to the second grade and would begin her studies following the winter break. The teacher at her community-based school noted the enthusiasm among all the students in the start of the new school year. “Students attend class with great passion and joy,” she remarked.

This school is one of 92 schools, hosting 191 classrooms, that Central Asia Institute is supporting in Northern Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Girls Education (AGE) project has been essential in providing primary schooling in Argo, Tagab, Baharak, and Khash Districts in Badakhshan.

A sustained demand for education

Parents, community elders, members of shuras (councils), and schoolteachers have been actively engaged with the project, offering support, insight, and participation in training workshops. While community involvement is essential for schools anywhere in the world, it is especially important in these mountainous villages where insecurity and cultural restrictions can pose substantial challenges.

There is no doubt that the Taliban restrictions have resulted in tremendous loss of learning for the girls and women of Afghanistan, and the path forward is uncertain. Despite this, the demand for education among families is higher than ever. Our project currently serves 5,696 students, of whom 4,074 are girls; and our partners receive calls from villages throughout the region asking for educational support. Beyond the Taliban restrictions, the lack of education services has been exacerbated by a lack of resources and poor infrastructure, geographic barriers and natural disasters.

The pressures of a humanitarian crisis

Although continued education is a top priority for the communities that Central Asia Institute works with, the ongoing humanitarian crisis demands attention. More than 28 million people need assistance and have faced internal displacement. In 2022, Central Asia Institute delivered aid to 6,628 people in the form of food packages, health and hygiene items and cold weather gear. Meeting the immediate needs of these families, along with supporting infrastructural improvements, is part of our comprehensive efforts to deliver quality education.

Why your support matters

Gul's father takes great pride in his daughter’s achievements. He reflects on the days before she was enrolled in school, and how joyous the change has been. “Before, the walls of our house were dark, but now they are bright and colorful with drawings, paintings, and calligraphy hanging on the walls. It cheers us up and gives us hope for a bright future,” he says. As for Gul, she knows that she and her classmates are ready for life as second graders, saying: “We girls are so motivated to study and learn.”

Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, reducing poverty, and fostering peace.  At CAI, we believe that education is a currency of hope for a better future and we are thankful for each gift that makes our work possible.  

Gul Naz with her father and teachers
Gul Naz with her father and teachers
Second grades students in Northern Afghanistan
Second grades students in Northern Afghanistan
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Kids in rural Afghanistan get the chance to attend school for the first time

High up in the rugged mountains of Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan, nestled between a small cluster of mud-brick homes, 6-year-old Jaweriya sat in a small classroom, carefully tracing over the letters of the Pashto alphabet with her tiny, hennaed hands.

Jaweriya wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to make the one-and-a-half-hour walk to this second-grade class in a community-based school in Spenkai village. Established in December 2020, it is the only school in the village. “We are learning the letters so if we go to the city, we can read the signs for the doctor,” said Jaweriya. “I want to learn them so I can teach my mother how to write her name.”

This community-based school is one of 49 schools established by Shining Star, one of CAI’s partner organizations in Afghanistan. Located in remote areas far from any public schools, these community-based schools provide classes for girls and boys in grades one to three who otherwise would not be attending school at all. With the support of CAI, Shining Star recruits and trains teachers and provides books, learning materials, school supplies, and furnishings. In 2022, CAI supported a total of 191 community-based schools across six provinces. In 2023, CAI hopes to expand its support to 250 communities to help meet the enormous needs.

Ten-year-old Hamidullah is another student at the community-based school in Spenkai village. “This school is very good because they gave us books and pens for our studies,” he said. “I never did any studies or had any books before because my father could not afford them. It’s the first school I have gone to, and I want to do very well in my classes because my father is not employed. But I will be a doctor.”

Students leave the CBE school after classes
Older girls are given new opportunities

While the community-based schools are focused on grades one through three, the program also targets many older children who didn’t have access to schools when they were younger. For example, 12-year-old Osmania, a second-grade student at a community-based school in Spenkai village, began her schooling at age 11. That meant she was learning alongside 6-year-olds in first grade. “I talked with the elder of the village and my family and they allowed me to attend this school,” she explained.

After her school day, Osmania does her homework and then helps her mother with the chores, like washing the clothes, sweeping the floor, and looking after the animals. “Then I teach my mother what I have learned at school,” she said. “Last night, I taught her the seasons of the year because she didn’t go to school.”

Teachers in these schools say that older students who have not received any schooling before can catch up through accelerated learning. This is particularly important for girls, who have always faced more roadblocks to getting an education and are now dealing with new restrictions under the Taliban regime. While boys at all levels have been permitted to attend school, the Taliban has blocked girls from attending secondary school (above grade six). Taliban officials have set no conditions or timeline for lifting the ban, insisting it’s only temporary. But the Taliban policy has met with resistance. In many parts of the country, tribal leaders, educators, and families are taking steps to ensure that older girls are provided with the education they need.

“I think for these older girls, accelerated learning is best, where in one year they can learn two grades,” said Kamel Farhat, deputy director of Shining Star. In 2022, CAI supported accelerated learning centers in which more than 1,200 older girls were enrolled.

Ultimately, the hope is that the Taliban will reverse the ban on girls’ secondary education. In the meantime, CAI is supporting additional programs to ensure these girls don’t fall behind in their studies, including at-home learning programs for high school girls and training courses for older female high school students who want to become teachers.

A CBE school in Parwan district
The whole community benefits when children go to school

One key aspect of the community-based school model is that the entire community is involved in the creation and management of the schools. First, the school must get the approval of the village elders or mullahs—the religious leaders of the community. They also decide where the school will be located, such as in a home or a mosque. Teachers are recruited from among the local populace based on their qualifications and are provided with training. Parents serve as volunteers.

Ibrahim, who is Jaweriya’s and Hamidullah’s teacher at the school in Spenkai village, has seen how the positive effects of the school ripple throughout the community. “The parents come to me and say these children are the future of this village,” he said. “Older children from the village ask me if I can provide classes for them, and sometimes old men from the village come and sit in the back of the class with notebooks because they want to learn.

They are eager because in the past there were no options for them to learn.” Ibrahim’s students must deal with many challenges. They’re often sleepy during class because they have to get up so early to walk to school. Some are hungry and unable to focus because their parents are too poor to provide them with a nutritious breakfast. Some struggle with homework because their parents and older siblings don’t have an education and can’t help them. But despite all this, his students and their families are grateful for their community schools.

“In many ways, my students are teachers at home to their families,” said Ibrahim. “Before, when the people of this village would travel to the city or district center, they were not able to read and understand the signs for the clinic. Now they can because their children have taught them.”

The CBE girls school in Kabul district
Overcoming conservative values and Taliban threats

With every new school that comes to a village, there are always obstacles that must be surmounted. One of the biggest is the conservative attitudes of the villagers and their long-held belief that girls should remain at home to do the housework and should never come in contact with boys when attending school. Some believe that educating girls is going against Islam.

According to Enayat-U-Rahman, a teacher at a girl's community-based education (CBE) school, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “From an Islamic perspective, education is important for both boys and girls. But for girls, it is more important,” he said. “If a mother is educated, the child will learn from its mother, and she will encourage them to go to school also.”

Mohammad Gul, an imam and teacher at the CAI-supported school held inside a mosque in Kata Sang village, disagrees with the Taliban’s decision to ban girls from secondary education, saying there is no Islamic basis for it. “I told the villagers this. And they trust me because I am the imam in the mosque here,” he said. “When this school opened, many older girls came to me and asked to be enrolled in this class because there was no high school for them. The girls in this class are very sharp—even smarter than the boys.”

Mirza Mohammad, the imam at the mosque in Ashaba village in Parwan province, sees the Taliban’s decision as political and not in accordance with Islam. “Under Islam, girls have a right to education and work,” he explained. “It’s important for girls to get an education so that they and their children know their rights, including property rights and inheritance rights. More importantly, education gives them a purpose in their lives to be someone. My daughter can choose what she wants to be in the future.”

Sometimes, the obstacles to providing an education to girls are life-threatening. One man from Sondry village in Dara-I-Pech district of Kunar province described what happened when his community established a CBE school in December 2020, the first school in the village. “At the time, the Taliban was in the mountains around the government-controlled village, and they sent threatening letters to us saying that we must stop girls’ education here,” he recalled. “They said they did not want female teachers and doctors working in the village. They threatened to kill us, but we did not stop. Like my children were, I wanted all the children of this village to be educated, and that’s why we continued our work. And the community supported us also to stand against the Taliban.”

In fact, the school was such a success, even some of its most fervent critics changed their minds. “The funny thing is that now two of the Taliban that were threatening us want us to register their daughters in this class,” the man said. “They support the school now and they want secondary schools to be opened because they want girls from their own villages to be teachers and doctors.”

Morning classses at the CBE girls' school in Kunar Province
Giving up on education is not an option

In the foreseeable future, these villagers will continue to face major hurdles to providing an education to their sons and daughters. They will have to deal with too few schools to meet the growing demand, along with a shortage of teachers who are qualified to teach in them. They will confront the challenge of finding the funds needed to pay teachers salaries, maintain their classrooms, and provide books and other supplies to students. And they will have to face the fact that the ruling Taliban government will continue to try to prevent girls from getting the education they want so badly. But none of these challenges will stop them from trying—and succeeding. Just one year ago, there were few schools in the remote areas of Kunar, Kabul, and Parwan. Today, some districts have up to 25.

And the kids, with the support of their families, will keep on coming. Nine-year-old Farhat attends the CBE school in Shah Wali Khel village in Parwan province along with her 7-year-old sister Kosar. “Our mother told us to come to this class,” said Farhat. “Our father went to Iran to look for work six months ago. When he comes back, I’ll show him that I can read and write. And someday, I will be able to look for work so that he doesn’t have to.”

CBE girls school


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Let’s look at the big picture

Multiply every preschooler who attends an early childhood program, every girl who graduates from secondary school, every college student with a degree, and every woman who’s earning income thanks to vocational training, and you start to see the impact of your donation. See where and how your contribution is changing lives in our latest Impact Report.

Read about the lives you’re changing
Nadia an 8-year old girl from Aghanistan

At 8 years old, Nadia had never seen the inside of a classroom. She couldn’t read. She couldn’t write. And she couldn’t count. “School is important for everyone,” she says, “because we learn about ourselves and determine our futures here.”


Moon and star

It is about Fakhriya who couldn’t find a job in her tiny rural town, so she started her own sewing business after graduating from a CAI-sponsored entrepreneurship training program. Now she earns enough to pay herself and her two employees. “The training changed my life,” she said.

Moon and star
Pakistani girl writing on blackboard

Meet Dilshad, a young Pakistani student. She thought she would never learn to read or write because her mountain village had no school. Today Dilshad and 63 other girls and boys are learning the alphabet in their community school.


Moon and star
Our friends say thank you!
Gratitude is at the heart of everything we do. Without your support, the programs and services that are changing lives for the better wouldn’t be happening. No one feels the gratitude more than our program recipients, community members, and partners in Central Asia. They’re here to say THANK YOU!
Your gift is so much bigger than one girl
Serving more than 3,000 women and children is only the beginning. Empowered by education, those thousands of individuals are impacting their families, communities, and future generations. Whole societies are being transformed. Everyone benefits when girls and women are educated. Thank you for your passion and your commitment to changing the world through education. Your donation is where it starts.


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Fighting the odds: new programs keep education alive for Afghan girls

Take a moment and imagine what it’s like to be a girl or young woman living in Afghanistan today…

Even before the Taliban took control of your country last summer, the odds of learning to read or pursuing a career were stacked against you. Assuming you are one of the millions of girls who live in a remote, rural area, education was already most likely not an option due to an insufficient number of teachers and schools where you live. Or perhaps ongoing war made it too risky for you to travel to and from the nearest school.

On top of that, you’ve probably been confined by conservative cultural norms – which have long prevailed outside of cities – that relegate you to the domestic realm and prioritize education for boys. If you did go to school, you likely were unable to advance beyond a few years and were forced to drop out, perhaps even to marry at an early age.

If you were lucky enough to have reached high school, the new ban on girls’ secondary education has likely dashed your dreams of continuing your education. Or if you were luckier still to be attending university, new rules requiring you to be educated by a female teacher may mean you can no longer attend your classes and complete your degree because there’s no female professor to teach your class.

And if you are any one of the 3.7 million Afghan females who had beaten the odds and were enrolled in school before the Taliban took control, you’re probably bewildered by why you – an innocent child who longs only to read books or study math, or to become a teacher or doctor – are so threatening to a group of men armed with guns and bombs.

Most of us may find it hard to imagine how girls and young women in Afghanistan muster the strength to keep going; to keep fighting to beat the odds. Yet at CAI, we are amazed and deeply inspired by what we are seeing in Afghanistan today: despite the odds, Afghan girls are fighting harder than ever to pursue an education.

Afghan girls in a tent school
That is why we are more determined than ever before to stand with them.

Thanks to your generosity, this spring, Central Asia Institute is doubling down on efforts to support education programs for girls and young women in Afghanistan.

Working closely with our local Afghan partners, CAI is focused on investing in projects that will safeguard access to education – ensuring thousands of girls and young women living in remote, impoverished regions of the country have the opportunity to pursue an education.


Our strategic priorities include:

  1. Working with local communities, to ensure their buy-in and meet the demand for education that is still prevalent among village leaders, clerics, parents, and children in so many places.
  2. Prioritizing programs that reach remote, underserved districts and villages with the largest number of out-of-school girls – whether they have never gone to school or were forced to drop out.
  3. Holding classes in secure, discreet environments where girls can be educated in smaller groups and away from prying eyes.
  4. Recruiting and training women from the community to become teachers, and providing learning materials, textbooks, and school supplies.

Thanks to you, as spring gets underway, approximately 4,200 children – more than half of whom are girls – are being enrolled in over 140 community-based schools supported by CAI. These classes will accommodate both primary school-aged children and older girls who will benefit from accelerated learning programs to help them catch up with their peers.

CAI is also working to meet the urgent need for more, better-trained teachers. We are prioritizing female teachers given the Taliban’s rules on female-only instruction for girls. In the coming weeks, approximately 140 women and men who’ve been recruited from the communities where these classes are located will be trained to become teachers. This support offers them the opportunity to not only pursue a profession but also earn an income at a time when their country is facing an economic crisis and poverty is rife. In addition, CAI is supporting training for an additional 320 teachers at local government schools in these areas to improve the quality of education the children living in remote villages receive.

Looking to the future:

Given the enormous challenges that have arisen over the past six months since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban seized control, we couldn’t be more committed to these programs or more thankful to you for making them possible.

At the same time, CAI and our local partners are well aware that new challenges and obstacles are likely to arise in the future. If anything, our 20-plus years of experience working in Afghanistan has taught us to be prepared for adversity, skilled at adapting, and resilient in the pursuit of our mission. In the coming months, we’ll do our best to keep you posted on the progress of our programs and changes on the ground. In the meantime, we are always here to answer any questions you might have.

Once again, we are so deeply grateful for your steadfast commitment to Central Asia Institute, and the people we serve. Thanks to you, Afghan girls can again dream of a better, brighter future. 

Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions that you might have. You can reach us at or 406-585-7841.


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Girls’ education in Afghanistan: Sowing the seeds of hope for a better future

By Alice Thomas

Afghan women and girls face an uncertain and ominous future.

Now that U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has regained power, women and girls fear a return to the brutal repression of freedoms and rights they experienced two decades ago. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more apparent that these fears could become reality.

Despite promises to the contrary, the Taliban’s new cabinet does not include a single woman. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been disbanded and supplanted with a Ministry of Virtue and Vice, known under the prior regime for brutally enforcing the group’s strict interpretation of Islam under Sharia law. In addition, within weeks of the Taliban’s coming to power, the rights of Afghan women and girls to education and work were already being significantly curtailed—not to mention the broader rights of all Afghans to freedom of religion and movement. All around the country, there are reports that women who previously worked in government offices, banks, and other businesses are being told to go home “where they belong.”

While primary schools have continued to operate for girls and boys, in late September, the education ministry ordered male students and teachers back to high school, but made no mention of female students, raising fears that girls would be banned from attending school beyond the sixth grade. Following public outrage, the Taliban quickly backed down, announcing girls would be permitted to return to secondary school “soon.” But what that will look like and under what conditions remains uncertain.i

In some regions of the country, female students have been prohibited from attending university, including Kabul University, the country’s premier public university. In late September, the school’s new, Taliban-appointed chancellor proclaimed that female students and teachers would be banned altogether from attending.ii More broadly, the Taliban’s new education minister recently declared that going forward, women and men must be educated and work separately. This would effectively act to limit girls’ ability to attend anything beyond primary school given the limited number of high school and university teachers who are female. Women who have been permitted to attend certain universities are also being forced to wear long, black abayas that cover their entire bodies and a niqab over their faces, leaving just their eyes uncovered.

For Afghan women and girls, the extent of sorrow and loss they are feeling cannot be overstated.

Group of Afghan girls walking to school
The promise of education

But there may be reason for hope. Today’s Afghanistan is different in important ways from when the Taliban last held power. There has been significant progress in Afghan women’s and girls’ access to education, jobs, and political participation. Most notably, literacy rates among girls have doubled. Of the 9 million students enrolled in school in 2018, 3.8 million were female. When compared to 2001, when virtually no girls were enrolled in school, this represents enormous progress.iii

In urban areas, before the recent takeover by the Taliban, 45% of girls attended secondary school. (Although in rural areas, progress has been much slower with only 17% of girls advancing to secondary school.) Over the past 20 years, the number of schools increased 10 times and the number of female primary teachers grew to approximately one-third of the nation’s teachers.iv Public support for education has also dramatically increased. A 2019 survey across all 34 of the country’s provinces found that 87% of women and 85% of men supported women’s access to education.v

In the past two decades, women have also seen important gains in terms of access to jobs. As of 2017, approximately 40% of working-age adults were female. There are more women-run businesses than there were 20 years ago, and there have been meaningful improvements in women’s participation in the Afghan Parliament, police, and judiciary. While surely not enough, these are nonetheless important milestones of

With the situation still evolving, it is this generation of educated women who are emerging as seeds of hope. As of late September, women across Afghanistan were publicly protesting Taliban edicts that would ban them from holding government office and entering the workforce. They are risking their lives, knowing that such protests have already been brutally repressed. But they have not been deterred, and the world has been astounded by their bravery.

Afghan women inside and outside of the country recently launched an online media campaign protesting the new restrictions on dress. Using hashtags like #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture, women are posting pictures of themselves on social media wearing traditional Afghan women’s clothing characterized by bright colors and embellished with embroidery and small sparkling mirrors. In doing so, these women are not only rejecting niqabs and burkas but reclaiming their identities as well. As one Afghan women’s rights advocate explained, “Our traditional clothes represent our rich culture and history of 5,000 years, which makes every Afghan feel proud of who they are.”vii

Propelling these brave women is the thought of a life without the rights to work, education, or self-determination; a life confined to their homes; and a life stripped of books, music, laughter, and hope. For them, this is no life at all.

Girl writing on black board
What can we expect from the Taliban in terms of girls’ access to education?

What girls’ education will look like under Taliban rule is far from clear. In Central Asia Institute’s experience, even in those areas that have long been under Taliban control, practices can vary when it comes to what is acceptable. Whether this will continue to be the case now that the Taliban rules the entire country is hard to say. But among the Taliban, significant differences of opinion with respect to education suggest that going forward, a uniform approach to girls’ education may be hard to achieve. Recently, there have been disagreements between hardliners and those who recognize that Afghanistan needs a better and more modern educational system.viii

It is true that for now, Afghanistan’s women and girls face a dark future. Yet there is an entirely new generation of Afghan women and girls who have emerged over the past two decades. They are both proof and hope of what remains possible. Education will empower Afghan women and men all over the world to fight for a better future for themselves, their families, and their country.


i. Zucchino, D., & Blue, V. (2021, September). A Harsh New Reality for Afghan Women and Girls in Taliban-Run Schools. In The New York Times.

ii. Engelbrecht, C., & Hassan, S. (2021, September). New Taliban Chancellor Bars Women from Kabul University. In The New York Times.

iii. The Right to EducationWhat’s at Stake in Afghanistan, 20 Year Review (2021, September). In UNESCO.

iv. Afghanistan: Women’s Economic, Political, Social Status Driven by Cultural Norms (2021, April). In National Intelligence Council.

v. A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2019: Infographics (2019, December). In The Asia Foundation. 

vi. Supra note iv 

vii. Afghan women hit back at Taliban with #DoNotTouchMyClothes campaign (2021, September). In BBC.

viii. Supra note iv

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