The mission of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) is to empower all Afghans who are vulnerable and in need by expanding their education and health opportunities and by fostering self-reliance and community participation. AIL takes a holistic approach to its work with the goal of developing the overall health and education capacity of Afghan individuals and communities.
Because of the years of war, the educational system in Afghanistan has greatly deteriorated. The literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world with an estimated 31% of Afghan males and 15% of Afghan females literate. The situation is particularly acute for women and girls because of the banning of public education for females under the Taliban. Many teenage girls and boys and women were either not allowed to attend schools or had no opportunity to attend schools because of the fighting in Afghanistan. Many of the boys who went to school had a very poor education.
Faced with overwhelming needs from all sectors of the society, the Afghan government has opened schools and millions of children have now begun to continue their education. However, many older girls and boys, married girls and women are not allowed in the schools because of their age or their marital status.
To meet the educational needs of these older girls and boys and married women and in response to the requests of Afghan women, community leaders, and the Afghan government, AIL opened Women’s Learning Centers (WLCs) for women and girls and then Educational Learning Centers (ELCs) for females and males in Afghanistan. AIL was the first NGO to start Women’s Learning Centers (WLCs) in refugee camps in 2002 and soon after opened its first Educational Learning Centers (ELCs) in Afghanistan. WLCs and ELCs take a holistic approach and are designed to meet the multiple needs of Afghan women, girls and boys. Through the WLCs and ELCs that AIL supports, AIL offers preschool through university-level classes and trains teachers and administrators. In each of its centers, AIL also offers health and peace education and workshops that train women and older girls and boys to be leaders and to advocate for their basic human rights. The subjects of AIL center fast track classes presently include literacy (which includes reading, writing and math), sewing/tailoring, carpet weaving, English, computer, knitting, beautician training, math, chemistry, algebra, physics, trigonometry, Dari, Pushto, embroidery, calligraphy, art and Arabic. The goals of the students vary. Some students just want to learn to read and write. Others want to learn a skill so that they can earn money or make clothes for their family. Still others want to improve their knowledge of various subjects or learn English or computer skills to increase their chances of getting a job. Although the ages of students range from 8-65, about 70% of the students are between 15 and 25 and more than 75% of the students are between 10 and 25. Overall, 60% of the students are female. This, of course, varies with each new class and from center to center.
WLCs and ELCs are housed in homes in the community where the WLC/ELC is located. The community either donates the facility or rent is paid for use of the facility. Teachers come from the community. The women in the community decide if they want to meet in the morning or the afternoon or in both the morning or afternoon. Each class meets for an hour daily from Saturday through Thursday except for holidays. Although there are a few classes that have chairs and tables, most classes have a floor covering and a blackboard and other equipment pertinent to the class being taught (sewing machines, looms, etc.) and the students sit on the floor. Incorporated into the curriculum of each class is material on human rights, health and peace. The duration of the class varies depending on the subject. Beginning literacy, sewing, knitting and beautician classes are for 6 months. The duration of upper level classes in literacy depends on how fast the students study. The duration of other classes vary and, again, students can proceed at their own speed. Arabic classes usually require 8 months to 3 years. Carpet weaving usually requires 7 months to one year. It takes 5 to 6 months to finish a complete computer program—basic to advanced. One computer course usually takes 3 months. It takes 6 months to one year to complete calligraphy. Math classes are on-going and individualized to the students needs. Each level of English class is for 2½ to 3 months.
All of the classes are what AIL calls “fast track” classes. AIL had developed “fast track” classes during the time of the Taliban when AIL supported 80 underground home schools for over 3,000 girls in Afghanistan. Because the classes were multi-grade and because so many students were already behind their grade level, AIL developed a program whereby the students could study at their own pace. With the fall of the Taliban, most students wanted to learn as fast as possible. Thus, the majority of the educational classes offered through AIL WLCs and ELCs are “fast track” classes. What this means is that students study at a faster pace and greater intensity than students would in a regular school setting. Thus, for example, a literacy student will finish the first grade material in 6 months rather than 9 or 12 months. The literacy student can then either go on to a higher level, study another subject, or take a school placement test and mainstream into a government school at the student’s age level. Likewise, students who are weak in a particular subject, like math, can take a math class at one of AIL’s centers and study on an accelerated basis. This may be the subject which is holding the student back from joining her age group. By taking this class, she can then “challenge” the grade, take a test and progress to the next grade level. Skills training classes, such as tailoring, carpet weaving, embroidery or beauty shop classes are also “fast track” classes.
AIL is presently supporting WLCs and ELCs, which provide fast track classes, at 38 locations in five provinces of Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Through its centers, AIL now offers educational opportunities to 25,000 Afghan women and children annually. Additionally, basic health services are available to many center participants through AIL health clinics. Services include medical examinations, midwifery and nursing services, vaccinations, and health education about hygiene and the proper use of medicine. Of AIL’s 38 educational centers, 33 are Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). If a center is a CBO, it means that AIL did not actually start the center. Rather, the community decided that it needed a center, found a location, identified teachers and students and subjects that older girls and boys and women in their community wanted to study. The community members then came to AIL and asked for support for their center. AIL requires community participation from every project that it has. In the case of WLCs and ELCs, the community will either provide the building for the center or charge fees to the center to cover the costs. The overall security and running of the center is in the hands of the community.
AIL also places a great emphasis on training both teachers and administrators and has continued to expand its training programs. In addition to the training that AIL does for the government and NGOs, AIL trains all of the teachers and administrators in its centers. AIL has now trained over 12,000 teachers in pedagogy and subject matter seminars. AIL is continuing to offer its leadership and human rights seminars to women, government officials and NGO leaders and recently was asked to hold a training session for new members of parliament. Because of the need, AIL has developed new training material in management to build the capacity of government and NGO staff. In the last year, AIL has held management workshops for Ministry of Women’s Affairs staff in Kabul and Herat, for new parliamentarians, and for the staff of a number of NGOs and CBOs. The ultimate goal of the training for teachers is to improve the quality of education of the students and the goal of administrative training is to enable the community administrators to more effectively run their center and ultimately become self-sufficient.
Because AIL’s WLC/ELC program is a long term, holistic, capacity-building program, AIL continues to support centers until they have either reached their goals or become self-sufficient. Since it began this program, AIL has supported more than 100 centers. As centers become self-sufficient or close because needs have been met and as funding is available, AIL opens new centers.
AIL’s learning centers have been particularly important for Afghan women and girls. Often there are no girls schools in the communities where they live. Afghans are sometimes reluctant to send their females to schools and Afghan schools will not accept older girls or married women in beginning classes. AIL’s centers, because they are grassroots and started and run by the community have been very important for the education of Afghan females because families will allow their girls and women to go to these centers.
Presently, there are 6,713 women and girls studying in AIL centers.