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
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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Read and go forward:

Library on wheels delivers joy and knowledge to students in remote villages

For many children living in northern Pakistan, simply getting to school is the biggest barrier to getting an education. But with the introduction of an innovative library van last year, these children don’t need to travel to school. School can travel to them.

In 2020, Central Asia Institute commissioned a library van, something never before seen in this region. Stocked with hundreds of books, puppets, crafting materials, and more, the van’s purpose is to bring education and joy to out-of-school children living in impoverished, isolated communities.

The van is an unusual sight as it bumps along winding country roads. Painted in bright colors, with the slogan “Read and go forward” emblazoned on its side, the van sparks the curiosity of bystanders.

“When we are driving on the road, all the communities and students are watching our van,” says Ismail Hunzai, who creates lesson plans for children and sometimes travels with the van. “And they are asking questions: ‘What is this and what are you doing here?’”

The library van is uniquely able to reach remote villages with high numbers of out-of-school youngsters. In these areas, children often want to be educated, but their families can’t afford it or there isn’t a school nearby. Low school enrollment and attendance rates are big problems for many of the towns in northern Pakistan and throughout the country.  

“[Older children] might be allowed to go to school using public transportation or by walking,” explains Ms. Hira Amir, the instructor who travels with the van. “Because of this, some children only go to school three days a week [if they go at all]. But little children—girls and boys—many of them are not able to go to school because the school is too far away from their village.”

Thanks to the library van and the free classes it offers, these young children now have a chance to learn. Hira teaches them about reading, writing, math, art, critical thinking, and more. There’s even a lesson on gardening. All the exercises are interactive and encourage students to ask questions. Many are designed to bridge the gap between classroom learning and daily life.

Hira feels the lessons on nature and climate change are especially good at accomplishing this. One of her favorite books from the library talks about the importance of conservation. “Trees are our friends,” she says. “In the village, we see trees all around us. That’s why I teach [the students] to take care of trees. Trees are good for our health.”

Conservation is crucial in northern Pakistan, where farmers are clearing more and more trees to make room for farmland. There is a growing concern about deforestation and climate change throughout the country, yet the solutions and need for wild spaces are not widely talked about. (See page X for more information on climate change and girls’ education.)

Mr. Babar Khan, the library van project manager, speaks passionately about the need for more lessons that have real-world impacts. “Our classrooms are disconnected from our society,” he says. “Where and how will the classroom content be applied in your practical life? [This story] from the library is an example of how we can connect classroom learning and sensitize children and make [conservation] part of the social norm—to be a part of nature and not the enemy of nature. We are trying to introduce this concept to children at an early age so that it will last.”

Hira visits up to three villages a day. Throughout the month, she’ll service approximately 15 different locations, spending one to two hours in each village. Hira wishes that she could stay longer in each place, but due to the steep mountain terrain, the remote locations of the villages, and the poor quality of the roads, her drive to the next village is often long and slow.

Even though their time with the van is limited, children and adults have come to look forward to its arrival and all the treasures and joy it brings with excitement. “I am always welcomed by smiling faces,” says Hira. “And when I ask them if I can go, they always say ‘No, madam! We want more activities!’”

It’s no wonder that the communities love the library van. Few villagers have books to open their minds and imaginations to new information and ideas. And having engaging learning activities is a new concept for students in Pakistan. Teachers rarely use interactive materials like the ones Hira employs. Curriculums have historically focused on rote memorization and preparation for end-of-semester tests. Without interactive, playful lessons, students who go to government-run or private schools are slow to grasp or retain most of what they are taught and unable to analyze information.

To get a sense of what they were up against, Ismail conducted a survey when the van program was getting started. Children were tested on their knowledge of basic concepts, like the alphabet and numbers. Most scored very low on the assessment. Ismail used what he learned to design specific activities for each village. Activities that Hira uses with students are selected based on the assessment results.

The progress they’ve witnessed has been incredible. When the children were first tested, almost none of them passed the assessment. After one year, students were retested using the same assessment. This time, approximately 80% of students passed the test. Of the 20% who didn’t, most had poor attendance or had joined the program late. The library van team is targeting these students for special attention so they can catch up with their peers and be able to read, write, and speak English and Urdu—the two national languages—at a passable level in the next few months.    

The success of the van has been so impressive that other educational organizations have taken note, and several are considering replicating the program in other parts of the country. The van could be an innovative way to provide some of Pakistan’s 22 million out-of-school children with a different pathway to learning. 

To increase the reach of the program, Central Asia Institute recently equipped a second library van, which will visit villages in the northeast, while the original van will continue to travel in the northwest. But even with the second van, there are still many children who remain without access to education.

Eighteen communities have contacted the library team about having the van visit their villages. In addition, people along the van’s routes will often ask the driver to make a stop at their village. But with limited time and resources, the library team cannot add additional villages to their routes at this time.

“Yesterday, we were in one village called Bassin, near Warzad, a poor area where people live in tents and don’t know about education,” explains Amir, the library van’s driver. “All the children were on the side of the road swimming in the river. I asked them ‘Why are you not going to school?’ They told me that school is very far so they cannot go to school. The girls are at home doing chores and washing clothes, so they are not able to go to school either. These children don’t even know what a pencil is. So I showed them a pencil and how to use it. They were so interested.”

When he returned to headquarters at the end of the day, Amir shared this story with his boss. He hopes that one day he’ll be able to give these children the education they deserve and crave.

Until that day comes, he and the rest of the library van team are so grateful for being able to change so many lives with this project.

“Thanks deeply from the core of our hearts to the donors of CAI,” said Babar. “You provided us the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these children. There are still children out there waiting for us to create these opportunities for them, but whatever progress we have made so far is thanks to you, the donors. We wish to convey our deepest thanks to you. We appreciate your support and trust.”


Travel with us

Travel with the library van to remote mountain towns in northern Pakistan. Visit to watch the video.

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The villagers in the mountain community of Barushan in remote Tajikistan are abuzz. Old and young alike can’t stop talking about the construction of the new Preschool #2, now underway.

Yusuf Sarkorov of Barushan

Yusuf Sarkorov

“This is the best thing that happened here in Barushan this year!” exclaims Yusuf. His son attended the former preschool which was dilapidated, drafty, and horrifically unsafe.

“To all those who helped us and made a decision on this construction, huge gratitude from the residents of Barushan!”

Yusuf’s enthusiasm is shared by other parents, children, and teachers alike.

“The whole village is very, very happy,” says Nuriya Tavakalova, the head of the school. “Every day, passing by the construction site, people observe the construction process and are very happy that the work is progressing at such a speed.”

A new school is a big deal in a remote, impoverished village, where families can feel cut off, isolated, and forgotten by the rest of the world. Education represents the chance for a better life. A new school instills a sense of pride and ownership in the community. Their enthusiasm and sense of pride are contagious – we feel it and hope you, as a supporter, can feel it too!

Lasting impact for generations to come

The old school provided places for 112 children ages 3 to 6. The new two-story building will be large enough to accommodate the children on the waiting list, bringing the total to 130 children—an increase of at least 15 percent!

We’re projecting that enrollment will continue to grow as the area grows in population. The new school will also serve the young children from a nearby village.

But of equal importance is what the new school will mean for the community over the span of several years. By giving young children the advantages of an early start on education, the preschool will contribute to the long-term well-being of the entire village.

Future generations will receive a foundation for learning. Children who attend early childhood development activities like those that will be offered at Preschool #2 are likely not only to perform better in primary school and but also complete high school. And because children are more likely to stay in school when they start at a young age, the odds of them one day earning a living wage and contributing to their country’s economy also improve.

Rustam, an education specialist, and local resident echoes the cries of joy from her community. “We residents of Barushan village express our gratitude to CAI for such a gift to our children and our future as a whole!”

Click here to read the full story.


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Central Asia Institute

Location: Bozeman, MT - USA
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Janell Arneson
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