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We have always believed that childrens’ primary human right was to be fed and clothed,

confessed Zarmina, a 28-year-old mother of two daughters. Zarmina’s elder daughter is old enough to be sent to school but Zarmina felt it wasn’t as important to educate her daughters so they stayed home with her. The family of four lived a quiet and rustic life, farming for a livelihood, on their small plot of land in their village in Qala-e-Akhund of Behsood district, Nangarhar province. The mobility of women and girls in Qala-e-Akhund village, similar to many others in the area, is restricted to the boundaries of their village.

Our community firmly believes that girls and women were born to stay within their home yards, and it is dishonourable for them to go beyond that yard for education or work,

Zarmina affirmed. Though having accepted the cultural norms, it was with a faint heart. Zarmina herself did not agree with these customs and was not happy with her community’s low aspirations for girls and women.

Community World Service Asia conducted training on Child Rights and Gender Equality in Zarmina’s village in June 2015 as part of Girls Education Project Phase IV.  Zarmina, along with fourteen other women from her village participated in this training.

For just participating in the training, we had to meet and take permission of community leaders, religious bodies and Community Development Council (CDC) members. Although it was all worth it. We learnt about child rights, gender equality, child labour, and the negative impacts of early and child marriages, the rights of the disabled and about child protection.  This was the first time us women got the opportunity to learn and discuss our views on such sensitive topics. These topics were rarely spoken of in our communities. Therefore, to be aware of them and discuss them was very informative and mind-opening for us. It was after the training that we realized that it is our responsibility to enrol our children; boys and girls, in schools and support their education process,

shared Zarmina.

After taking the training, Zarmina and her peers started taking steps to convince their husbands to allow their school-aged children to attend school. In addition, Zarmina and three other mothers who had attended the training  established a Volunteer Education Committee (VEC). Through this Committee, they took on the role of teaching other women and community members what they had learned at the Child Rights and Gender Equality training. Through brief one to one meetings and home visits, the VEC encourages families in the village to send their children to school and educate them on the negative impacts of restricting children from studying and attending school.

Zarmina and other VEC members soon realized that more than 70 percent of the families in their village were against girls’ education because of the community’s negative perceptions about educating girls. They believed that there is no need to educate girls as they will be married some day and will take care of their families. Moreover, it was a shame for a father to send his daughter to school or work; hence girls would stay within the households. However, within a year and through consistent advocacy and determination, the VEC lowered this number to about 10-15%. The families that still hesitate from sending their children to schools  cite various reasons to do so. Some of these reasons include economic constraints, long distances to schools, and in some case children’s disabilities. Overall, Zarmina and the VEC have made commendable accomplishments in increasing enrolment levels of children in their village.  Something that seemed unthinkable was made possible due to the resilience and motivation of a few mothers.

A baseline survey was conducted in January 2016 in Mehterlam district, Laghman province and Behsood and Surkhroad districts, Nangarhar province. The survey covered 22 Girls’ High Schools in 22 villages in the said districts. According to the survey, 11 percent of the interviewed CDC members, village elders, religious bodies and community members and parents favoured girls’ education while 89 percent disapproved of it. As a result of the continuous awareness raising and one to one meetings of the VEC members with the community, the End line survey exhibited an 85 percent increase in favour for girls’ education. All groups expressed their approval in sending their children to schools, especially girls.

Zarmina proudly expressed,

I really feel proud that I have been effective in serving my community and convincing my people to send their children to school. The VEC members will most certainly continue meeting community people and working for this cause. We hope that one day there will be no child out of school, not only in our community, but in the entire country.

In a country where just 16% of the workforce is female, teaching women science subjects can help foster greater equality, empowerment and economic stability. Community World Service Asia holds teacher training workshops, through which aim is to improve education quality and community’s awareness for enhancing and sustaining enrollments in girls’ schools in Behsood district, Nangarhar province. Despite of the limitation teachers are eager to learn more and are interested to enhance their teaching skills. On this Women’s Day we spoke to a young Chemistry teacher; Huda from a local girls’ high school, located in Behsood.

Huda:

“I am very pleased to have participated in the chemistry workshop, since I studied chemistry at a teacher training institute but only learnt it in theory. In this workshop however, we learned practical and conducting experiments. When I learned the philosophy, methodology with practical experiments I became more clear about the concepts and highly motivated to transfer what I learnt by continue teaching chemistry to my students.”

She added:

“We received methodic learning and used low cost and no cost teaching aids. We are now implementing those methods. My aim is to teach students according to their needs.”

When asked about the suggestions to improve subject base training, she said:

“The workshop was great and useful, but I felt the days were less for three science subjects. If the days were increased from 4 days and teaching aids for Grades 10th, 11th, 12th chemistry lessons could have been included to solve all of our problems accordingly.”

In a highly conservative country where up to 85% of women have had no formal education, and only 16% of the workforce are women, in many ways these students are the lucky ones.

Still, according to the students, they face problems at home as their families do not allow their young daughters to attend school. Some only allow them to learn basic reading and writing. Yet, most of the girls are very motivated to learn sciences.”

Says Huda

She added:

“According to methodical topics, I found the morning meeting session as very important. First I thought of it as not useful to be implemented in class, but when I practiced in these meetings among students it proved to be very effective and useful. Students interest increased a lot and they loved interacting with each other and also started participating during lectures. This even led to a decrease in absentees and now up to 90% of the students have regular attendance Moreover, before these sessions, we used to scold students, but now we motivate them through different techniques in teaching. In teaching science my students saw how they did not need to bear extra cost for learning science. This acted as a great incentive for them.”

She also spoke about her personal aspirations:

“I am also very interested and motivated to complete my higher education.”

In the end she said:

“I suggest to expand subject based training to other untrained teachers. Teachers who have participated should implement their learnings in their classes to motivate and stimulate the learning of their students for a better future for these young girls”

The story from Afghanistan feeds into a wider struggle going on throughout the world to get more women into Science. While cultural barriers threaten the dreams and aspirations of young women and girls, the opportunities they can find through the science show them a larger world than the one that they have always known.

*Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to further protect the privacy and therefore safety of students and staff at the schools.

Shumaila, a 16 year old student of a Girls High School, Behsood district of Nangarhar Province, was a timid young girl dreaming to one day have the confidence to speak before a crowd, and be an all-rounder at school.

“One day, the principal of our school came to our class and announced that a summer camp on civic education is going to be held at school. I immediately raised my hand and showed my interest to attend the workshop. My teachers were surprised to see my reaction,”

narrated a bashful Shumaila.

“This four day camp was a lifetime changing experience for me. I learnt topics which we as students or even teachers had never learnt in school, such as human rights, child rights, state governance and democracy. Most importantly, the session on gender was very interesting and new to us.”

Shumaila  recalled how she enjoyed the various activities conducted at the camp; all were participatory and interactive.

“There was a lot of group work, role plays, art and paintings, energizers, and to top it all, a mock election!”

exclaimed Shumaila with excitement beaming in her eyes.

During the session on leadership skills, students were taught practical lessons on effective speech, and addressing audiences of different kinds. The mock election sessions were a simulation of the Afghan electoral process where all the students participated and role played.   Students at the session were asked to nominate three students for the candidacy of President, who were then asked to formulate their individual support groups who would canvass in favor of their respective leaders. Speeches were delivered, slogans were raised, and posters were displayed in the school; it was all a series of fun and learning based activities which further motivated the participants’ interest.

“It was during that election campaign that I acquired the skills and got the confidence required to speak and deliver speeches in public. The most important and memorable moment of my life was when the result of the elections was announced, and I was declared the winner. I felt as if I had been elected as the president of Afghanistan. Tears came out of my eyes with excitement and happiness. The summer camp changed my personality and I came out as an entirely different person. I became confident and developed knowledge on politics, rights of children and women. I wish to take part in real politics of my country some day, for the well being of my people and the development of Afghanistan,”

proclaimed Shumaila.

After participating in the summer camp on civic education, Shumaila started participating in all school  activities.

“There is a Shura of women in our community who mediate activities and conduct meetings between the school and students of the community. Previously I had not participated in meetings of the Shura, but since the elections I have started to participate primarily to raise issues faced by my friends and work fellows.”

 Shumaila put forward demands of hiring more professional and experienced teachers at school, and that the appeal was practically implemented.

“It was an achievement for the well-being of the students of our school. Following these changes, students participated in an interschool speech competition, and three of us won trophies as well.”

A graduation ceremony was conducted at the University of Nangarhar, which was attended by a number of teachers, students and government officials from the provincial Education department.

“I was invited to speak on the topic of importance of education. My speech was highly appreciated to the extent that the Director of Education awarded me with valuable gifts and encouraged me to continue my struggle for my peers.”

 

The past three decades of conflict have had a detrimental effect on Afghanistan’s education system. According to UNDP’s Human Development Report 2015, school-aged girls have been the most vulnerable group as a result of the conflict’s aftermath. However, the nation has been showing signs of progress as literacy rates have been on the rise as of late, over the past decade. Despite a significant improvement in children’s education, Afghanistan’s youth still has a great number of problems to address, especially afghan girls, who have to face obstacles such as early marriage, lack of security, and inaccessibility to schools and infrastructural facilities.

Lack of infrastructure, including the issue of inadequate classrooms and furniture in schools being a most major difficulty, leads students to sit in open air in fields, on non-cemented floors without the availability of basic mats or carpets. With the support of Japan Platform’s additional fund, the Quality Education and Safe School Environment project team initiated a needs assessment to identify the quantity of plastic mats needed in each of the targeted schools. After reaching a conclusive number, the project team procured and distributed 140 plastic mats in eight targeted schools of Behsood district. The plastic mats provided 4500 female students with a comparatively cleaner and safer studying environment.

Amina, a third grade student from Farm-e-Ada Girls High School says, “Today I’ve found that we have been given plastic mats to sit on during class, and I am very happy. Last year, we requested our principal to provide us with mats because the floor was very rugged, and the few mats that we had lying around were torn and old. The principal said that he had already requested the education directorate for this, but had not received a response till now.” Amina added, “My mother had to put an extra effort to wash my uniform every other day, simply because it got too dusty when we sat on the old dirty mats. She always complained to me that I came home dirtier than other kids. I used to tell her the reason behind this but she didn’t believe me. Until one day, she visited our school and saw us sitting on the floor during class. It was never a pleasure or easy to sit like this. But now, I prefer to rush early to school to make sure that I get the best spot on these clean mats in my class. Sometimes, when I reach half an hour early, I see that girls are already filling up all the space because they look forward to it just as much as I do.” Amina seemed most excited to get back home and inform her mother of the good news.

Security and basic needs must also be accommodated. Many parents do not allow their children to attend a school that does not have a safety, or boundary wall. In addition, many older Afghan girls are forced to drop out of schools that don’t provide basic sanitation facilities. We aim to improve the access to adequate educational facilities and services, and to ensure equitable access to quality education for girls, particularly those living in poor and remote rural areas.