Stop extremism. Teach Afghan kids to embrace peace

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Sabz, who attends school in the underserved region of Paghman, Afghanistan, might be considered fortunate in one respect.  Unlike many other girls who are pulled out of school once they reach puberty, Sabz's parents allowed her to continue her classes.  But while Sabz's father was pleased she was studying Islam and other core curriculum classes, he wasn't sure what value his daughter's new peace education class would bring to Sabz and the family.  When Sabz asked permission to remain at school for another hour once a week to learn peace education, he replied: "What are you going to be learning?  How to bring peace to Afghanistan?" he laughed. 

What Sabz's father couldn't really understand at first was that his daughter was learning some amazing things, including the art of mediating and resolving conflicts non-violently.  It's a fact of life that beatings and other physical altercations occur all too frequently in Afghan homes and domestic violence, rarely reported in Western media, is the largest single cause of deaths.  And it is in the homes where children learn from an early age that even the simplest disagreements are settled by aggression.  There are no alternatives.

It took a single incident one afternoon that changed her parents' attitudes about peace education. Sabz came home from school to a household in crisis.  Sabz's younger brother and older sister were in the middle of a horrible fight, yelling at each other at the top of their lungs, hitting and punching one another.  Sabz's mother was screaming for them to stop, but to no avail.  Sabz saw her father go to retrieve his stick; the one he used regularly to dole-out punishment when any of the children were disobedient.

Sabz sprang into action, separating her two siblings and imploring them to be quiet.  "Why are you fighting?" she asked.  As it turned out, her brother had accused his sister of stealing his pen, which the sister denied.  "And you are about to hurt each other over a pen?" Sabz inquired.  Sabz explained to them that there was a much better way to resolve their argument and would they like to know how?  Using the concepts about reconciliation she learned in class; first asking them to sit across from each other,  then taking turns to explain what was bothering them, using "I messages" and how they felt while the other person listened without interrupting.  Then she asked her brother and sister to each relate back what they heard the other say, making sure they were listeneing to each other's feelings.  Finally, she asked them to offer solutions to resolve the argument while respecting the other person's dignity.

Sabz's parents stood dumbfounded, watching this play out in front of them.  Within ten minutes, the two small combatants smiled, pleased with the results and shook hands.  As it turned out, the sister had not taken her brother's pen at all.  It was Sabz's mother who had seen and picked up her son's pen (not knowing it was his), which he had left outside their home and placed it in a drawer.  But to Sabz's father, this experience stunned him.  He rushed over to sabz and put his hands on her shoulders.  "Where did you learn to reconcile arguments?" he asked.  Sabz reminded her father that she had told him she was learning about reconciliation in class, but now he had seen it with his own eyes and a big sile came to his face.  "I am very proud of y ou" he said, and hugged her.

A few days later, Sabz learned that her father had spoken highly of her and the peace education class to a neighbor.  In small, but profound ways, learning about peaceful everyday living is slowly spreading in Paghman and other communities where HTAC operates.  Achieving real peace in Afghanistan may seen like some elusive dream, but children are showing the way.

peace education class, Kandahar
peace education class, Kandahar

Everyone told us it couldn't be done.  They told us it was too risky.  Go to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, and try to educate thousands of vulnerable Afghan kids about peace.

But that's exactly what we did. After months of painstaking negotiatiion with provincial and local officials in the very conservative region of Kandahar, HTAC implemented a bold, audacious project.  We trained over 1,100 teachers and brought our peace education program into 22 Kandahar City schools, enrolling over 36,000 students.

Many of these students came from families that had been sympathetic to the Taliban's rigid ideology and it was not that long ago when many of the same teachers would regularly beat and threaten their students as a way to discipline them; where the concepts of toleration, and respect for other viewpoints were non-existent.

After fourteen months the results were in. 84% of all teachers had abandoned corporal punishment practices and were role modeling positive behaviiors in the classroom, creating a safe, nurturing learning environment that allowed students to ask questions and offer opinions without the fear of being beaten.  Fighting, bullying and harrasment among students plummeted from an average of 880 per month to onbly 285 at all school sites, and 91% of enrolled students were demonstrating three or more of HTAC's critical peace action behavirors, including the use of non-violent conflict resolution to prevent or break-up potential fights.

Perhaps more impressively, was the impact of this program in the homes of these students.  HTAC received over 700 unsolicited letters from parents and local community leaders telling us about the dramatic (positive) changes in the behaviors of their sons and daughters and that local councils were now beginning to incorporate the lessons of peace, respect and cooperation into their discussions and practices.

The lure of extremism continues to be a major threat to the stabilization of Afghanistan, but we are confident that the overwhelming majority of these youth have and will continue to reject extremist ideology and the violence it breeds and instead embrace the basic principles of peaceful everyday living.

Help HTAC spread peace education to other regions of Afghanistan.  

The world was recently shocked and horrified over a video showing a mob of angry Afghan men beating to death and burning a 27 year old Afghan woman named Farkhunda who was accused of allegedly burning a Q'uran; a claim that was later proven false.  Sadly, in death, Farkhunda earned her 15 minutes of fame as the media, world leaders and others condemmed her brutal killing and for a brief moment, the plight of Afghan women became a news item.

Then, just as predictably, the media and the world moved on to the next big story and Farkhunda's death became an after-thought.  But the real tragedy is, thousands of Afghan women and girls are beaten, abused, raped and killed every year and no one knows their names. 

Despite constitutional laws designed to protect women and girls, beatings, abuses, harassments and deaths are commonplace throughout Afghanistan, from small remote villages to large urgan cities like Kabul.  As a male dominated society, most Afghan women are treated as commodities and second class citizens.  In many homes women are beaten (not just by their husbands), but by other female family members.  Boys quickly learn that they are favored over their sisters.  This significantly impacts their attitudes about girls and women as they grow older.  Many girls who reach puberty are pulled from school and forced into early marriages with men who often abuse them and prevent them from working, voting and participating in local civic affairs, even though Afghanistan's Constitution gives women these rights.

HTAC's project of preventing violence against women and girls is changing attitudes and behaviors of men and communities in targeted regions of the country where we work.  Our project has four objectives:  1) teach and motivate male leaders to respect and value women as community partners by including and involving them in local councils; 2) educate and train parents and other adults on the use of non-violent conflict resolution methods in homes, thereby reducing abuse and threatening behavior toward women and girls; 3) educate Afghan boys in schools to reject violence and adopt the principles of peaceful, everyday living, which has historically reduced fighting and aggressive behaviors; and 4) educate women and girls about their constitutional rights and protections and empower them to take more active roles in local community affairs.

Our task will not be easy and we face enormous challenges, but through education and your help, we can begin to transform a culture that moves from violence to one of peace and cooperation.  If we want to honor women like Farkhunda and thousands like her who have died violent deaths, this is a good way.  Lets make sure that girls (like 7th grader Atifa shown here), will grow up in a safe environment so they can lead productive, fulfilled lives,.

HTAC primary school peace room
HTAC primary school peace room

In rural Southern Afghanistan, the dark classroom with only one small window was so hot and stuffy that the 38 little girls could hardly breathe.  There were only 9 desks and a few long chairs that had to be shared among the young students.  Their teacher was trying to convince them how lucky they were to have the opportunity to study and learn, now that Afghanistan's Constitution decreed that girls as well as boys had the right to an education.  She was talking about their bright future, the possibilities, and the many ways they could help Afghanistan when they finished their schooling.

The girls listened quietly.  Their eyes were filled with questions, worries, and doubts.  They knew that just the night before their Principal received a night letter from an unknown group who warned him to shut down their school or they would kill him.  They were not sure if they would come tomorrow, or their school building would be standing.  And yet, here they were, eager to learn as much as they could.  Their thirst for knowledge was far greater than their fear.  These little girls and their teacher clearly understood what was at stake; it wasn't just their own personal lives, but the life and soul of Afghanistan itself.  They knew that without education there could be no chance for real lasting security, prosperity and a true civil society.

As U.S. and Western forces wind down their operations and turn over security to the (still fragile) Afghan national army, a furious war continues to rage in many parts of the country.  This war is much more complex than fighting the ever-resilient Taliban; It's a war between two fundamental philosophies- those who preach and teach extremist views that glorify fighting, violence and lack of tolerance for women, girls and ethnic minorities; versus those who believe and practice peaceful, everyday living and to respect others.  These extremists can be found, not just among the ranks of the Taliban, but in mosques, local communities; even schools and homes- where ignorance and fear of change reigns.

Help the Afghan Children is fighting this war by trying to educate impressionable youth, re-educate religious and community leaders about how peace and tolerance are hallmarks of Islam, re-training teachers to abandon corporal punishment practices, and helping parents create warm, nurturing home environments for their children and to support the education of their daughters.

As it turned out, those responsible for posting the night letter at the school Principal's home was a radicalized gang of young Afghan men who wanted to emulate the Taliban.  Fortunately, the local religious and community leaders as well as many parents rose up to defend the Principal and the school; authorities arrested the young men and the girls continued with their studies.  HTAC is committed to supporting these and other communities who yearn for peace and tolerance.   

There are many factors that contribute to Afghanistan's culture of violence and one of the least understood, yet significant causes is the behavior of school teachers.  For generations, the overwhelming majority of Afghan teachers, poorly educated and not trained in more modern methods, practice corporal punishment in the classroom - hitting, abusing and intimidating school children.  Such acts are not confined to male teachers as beatings of girls by women are almost as commonplace.  Most remarkably, these horrible practices are generally supported by parents who believe that children need to be harshly disciplined in order to learn respect for elders and behave responsibly in class.  After all, that is how they were brought up.

In schools throughout Afghanistan these practices are ingrained in the culture and have a huge, unintended influence on Afghan youth.  Many children who suffer abuse by teachers; especially at an early age, become bullies or join gangs, taking out their hurt and anger on other children, while giving them a false sense of status as kids to be feared and respected.  Others will become more vulnerable to extremist viewpoints and groups as they grow older, motivated not so much by radical Islam, but revenge on how they were treated by their teachers.

When HTAC begins working with a new school, we typically find that anywhere between 85% to 90% of male and female teachers use aggressive tactics in their classrooms.  Through intensive training and on-going coaching, we are able to shift the attitudes and behaviors of most of these same teachers to where almost 90% abandon corporal punishment within a 2-3 year period.

Mr. Abdul Rauf, a teacher in Afghanistan's Farah Province, describes his own transformation after completing HTAC's teacher training course.  "When I was recruited to be a teacher in my village, I resorted to the same aggressive methods of corporal  punishment I had experienced myself as a student since I knew of no alternative.  In my case, our teacher used wooden sticks or shook us to make us sit still and listen.  ILater, I was fortunate to participate in the new teacher training initiative and it has changed my entire perspective on the art of teaching and learning.  I have gained skills in active learning and motivation; that it is far better and more productive to listen and encourage students than to beat or disregard them.  It's better to spend time engaging students in exercises to help them learn the subject at hand and better prepare them for their exams.  Since returning to my school and resuming teaching, many of my students have expressed their gratitude in how I've changed.  They enjoy coming to class and are not afraid to ask questions.  Most gratifying is hearing that they never forget the lessons they are learning and applying in class."

With your support, HTAC can continue reaching out to teachers like Mr. Rauf, who will in turn, positively influence thousands of Afghan students in his lifetime and help keep them from becoming aggressive and radicalized as adults.

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Project Leader

Stephen Perlman

Consultant, HTAC
Fairfax, Virginia United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Stop extremism. Teach Afghan kids to embrace peace