Stop extremism. Teach Afghan kids to embrace peace

by Help The Afghan Children
Miss Nazi 7th grader
Miss Nazi 7th grader

When many people hear about Afghanistan's decades-old culture of violence and its effect on children, they're often surprised to learn that violence in the home is commonplace.  They assume that most of this violence is caused by men, they are typically shocked to learn that women (mothers-in-law, aunts, older sisters) are responsible for physically aggressive behavior against wives and younger girls.

Nazi, a 7th grade girl, is just one of tens of thousands of Afghan girls who grew up in such an environment where she was subjected to harassment and physical abuse by her older sister and Aunt.  Things were no better at school where Nazi was regularly tormented and threatened by a group of girls who ironically were victims of abuse in their own homes.

Nazi's fortunes began to change for the better when she enrolled in HTAC's peace education program.  Living in an environment where fighting seemed to be the only solution for resolving conflicts or disputes, Nazi was fascinated to learn of multiple ways to mediate and reconcile basic differences without violent acts of aggression or threats. 

Shy by nature, Nazi not only learned to role model these peaceful techniques in class, she surprised herself by volunteering to become a student peer mediator; part of a select group of students who step in and help mediate conflicts between students (typically occurring in the school yard), before they become violent.

One day the sister of a girl in Nazi's class hit another girl and the girl's gang of friends came to the class seeking revenge.  Before any fighting broke out, Nazi intervened and successfully mediated the problem, getting the girls to calm down and helping them understand there was a better, more peaceful way to resolve their differences.  The gang of girls who came to the class looking to fight felt better because Nazi made sure they were listened to and felt respected.  The girl who had started the problem, realized her impact of her impulsive actions and apologized.  When it all ended, there was a profound relief among the parties. They shook hands and promised to be more respectful and friendly to one another.  Nazi felt empowered.  She had made a difference.

Since then, Nazi has taken an even bigger step, teaching her family members about the lessons of peace and cooperation, and while things are not perfect, there has been a dramatic change in her household and much of the fighting has been replaced by expressing feelings and listening to one another.

Imagine what peace education can do if we could make this program available to thousands of other girls and boys, just like Nazi.

Mansoor, peacemaker
Mansoor, peacemaker

Young Afghan boys such as Mansoor, a student at Mirwais Mina High School in Jawzjan Province grew up in an environment where fighting and aggressive behavior seemed to be the only way to resolve conflicts.  But after enrolling in HTAC's peace education class, Mansoor discovered there was a better way to get along in the world.  When he observed two adult male neighbors beating one another, Mansoor bravely intervened and (at the risk of being injuried himself), used the skills he learned in class to mediate and resolve their conflict non-violently.  After listening to Mansoor talk about the benefits of living peacefully, the two men regretted their action and apologized to one another.

HTAC is educating and empowering a new generation of Afghan youth, like Mansoor, to become peacemakers.  Such efforts are having a profound impact in reducing fighting and aggressive behavior, not only in Afghan schools, but in homes (where violence commonly occurs), and entire communities.  By choosing to embrace peaceful, everyday living, Mansoor and thousands of Afghan boys each year are rejecting a culture of violence and are no longer vulnerable to extremist elements.

Guzal, peace advocate
Guzal, peace advocate

Most stories we hear about violence coming out of Afghanistan describe suicide bombings, roadside attacks or firefights between the Taliban and NATO or Afghan forces.  What typically goes underreported is the everyday violence that occurs in communities between neighbors and family members and it is most frequent in the less-educated, more conservative regions of the country where a culture of violence and aggression has existed for generations.

Guzal is a 12th grade girl, and one of 900 students who enrolled in HTAC's peace education program in Jouzjan Province, a region in norhtern Afghanistan.  In class, Guzal learned about the fundamental principles of peace and took particular interest in non-conflict resolution and mediation; concepts she had never heard of before, but she found them interesting.  Little did Guzal know, she would soon need to use these new skills to prevent a horrible tragedy from happening.

During the course of the school year, Guzal's grandfather (who owned a house in good condition on a reasonably-sized plot of land), passed away, leaving the property unclaimed.  A furious conflict erupted between Guzal's step grandmother and her uncle.  The grandmother wanted to pass on the house and land to her step-children while the uncle insisted the house was his.  As their back-and-forth argument escalated, her uncle threatened to kill Guzal's step-grandmother.

Guzal, relying on her non-violent conflict resolution and mediation skills that she learned in class, interceded.  As Guzal tells the story, she stoood between her raging uncle and step-grandmother, explaining that killing one another would not resolve things; that there was a better way.  After a tense half-hour, she convinced them to take their matter to court and resolve the problem in a fair, proper manner.

During the proceedings, Guzal, acting in a neutral manner, helped both her uncle and step-grandmother explain their case to the judge.  The judge divided the property legally and fairly to the satisfaction of both parties.  When it was over, Guzal's uncle (overcome with emotion), apologized to Guzal's step-grandmother for his harsh behavior and both of them hugged Guzal, thanking her for mediating their conflict. 

When Guzal finished telling HTAC her story, there was a contented smile on her face.  She had learned about peace and a tool she could carry with her for the rest of her life.

community peace building
community peace building

HTAC recognizes that teaching Afghans about peace and cooperation must involve not just schools, but entire communities.  That is why we are investing in educating and training local community leaders and citizens in developing conflict resolution and peace building skills so they can work out their differences in non-confrontational ways while establishing trust and cooperative relationships.

Working with local leaders and other influential citizens, HTAC peace building initiatives in selected regions of the country have helped reduce violence in homes (especially in more rural areas of the country), fighting between neighbors, and have reduced broad-scale aggression between communities.

By giving leaders respect while introducing methods of basic mediatiation and conflict resolution (using many of the same principles their children learn in schol), we are beginning to see local communities embrace the benefits of peaceful everyday living and begin to reject violence, physical aggression and/or threatening behavior.

A major part of HTAC's peace building plan is teaching male leaders to become more comfortable allowing more local women to join local councils and participate in decision-making for their community.  This not only helps protect women's rights and gives them a voice, but the presence of women creates a safer, more trusting environment for peace building to occur. 

Afghan youth embracing peace
Afghan youth embracing peace

When Help the Afghan Children decided to introduce its peace education program to 3,000 students at 8 middle schools and high schools in the Paghman District of Afghanistan, fighting and other forms of aggressive behavior were rampant.  During a one-month period prior to the launch of the new program, an astounding 2,848 (separate) incidences of fighting among boys as well as girls were observed, an average of about 142 per day.

Not surprising, our educational team also found that almost 90% of the teachers at these schools were routinely using counter-productive corporal punishment practices in the classroom (hitting, yelling and abusing the students as a way to make them pay attention and learn).  Sadly, most all of these teachers had experienced corporal punishment themselves as students.  Without knowing any better, they had grown up believing this was the acceptable way to motivate children.

Change takes time, but by the end of the first school year, we began to see some positive signs. Corporal punishment was still a significant problem, but now, over 30% of the Paghman teachers were consistently role modeling positive behaviors in the classroom and no longer hitting their students. Through our continuous training, these teachers learned that establishing a safe environment for students to learn was a far better way to motivate them.  Out on the school yards, Incidences of fighting and harassment were still high, but the  monthly average had been reduced by over 32% from nine months earlier.  While all students were attending peace education classes, HTAC had identified and begun training older students (and former bullies) who had embraced the values of peace and were no longer fighting and tormenting other children.  Now, as student peer mediators, the older kids were establishing themselves as new role models for the others.

Our team was encouraged by these modest gains, but our goal was to fundamentally change attitudes and  create a new culture where teachers and students would reject aggressive forms of behavior and embrace the principles of peace and cooperation.  In  year two, we began to see breakthroughs.  Over 62% of all teachers had abandoned corporal punishment altogether.  Meanwhile, fighting and bullying had been reduced by over 63%. and is dropping steadily.  Through teacher peer pressue and continued coaching, we expect up to 90% of the school's 441 teachers to be role-modeling positive behaviors in the classroom.  Out in the school yard, students are commonly using non-violent conflict resolution techniques (learned in class) to peacefully resolve their differences.  Remarkably, many students who would fight one another have become close friends - such is the power of peace.

 

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Organization Information

Help The Afghan Children

Location: Fairfax, Virginia - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.HelpTheAfghanChildren.org
Help The Afghan Children
Project Leader:
Stephen Perlman
Consultant, HTAC
Fairfax, Virginia United States

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Thanks to 62 donors like you, a total of $11,813 was raised for this project on GlobalGiving. Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
   

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