Community World Service Asia has been working to promote education for girls in the rural Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan since June 2013. In Nangarhar, like most of the country, the legacy of the Taliban combined with poverty, cultural norms, weak educational infrastructure and the challenging terrain present serious hurdles to access to education, especially for girls.
In order for us to be able to support girls in Nangarhar to realize their right to quality education, we work extensively with school faculty and teachers. Educational professionals in Afghanistan face serious challenges such as insufficient training, under-resourced schools and overcrowded classrooms. For women, socio-cultural constraints make it extremely difficult to work as a teacher. Shahida Zaheer is an inspirational woman who has faced numerous struggles in her journey to becoming the Principal of Charbagh-e-Safa Girls’ High School and in making the attainment of education accessible for all.
Shahida explains that education was seen as a burden not just by the society but by students as well. The school only had one teacher who was responsible for teaching the whole student body. The school was not able to provide a good learning environment, as it not only lacked a supportive faculty and a set curriculum but where sports and other extra-curricular activities were not organized. Students were forced to attend school on the insistence of their parents and did so half-heartedly with poor learning outcomes.
Community World Service Asia has conducted training sessions for the school’s teachers and organized summer camps for the students as well as equipping the school with much-needed sports facilities. Because of the training programs, the teachers are more confident in their methods and use different approaches to make the learning process not only fruitful, but fun as well. The addition of a sports ground last year has further strengthened the students’ desire to attend the school. Along with learning in an engaging and stimulating environment, the students also get to play games of cricket and football. Shahida adds that that she is hopeful that their school sports team will soon be playing at the same level as teams from other schools, and will be able to participate in inter-school competitions.
Shahida talked about the role that the Shura (local decision-making and consultative group of influential community leaders) and Mula Imam (religious leader) have played in supporting the school. Because of external pressures and the prevailing view in society that education is not vital, many children were either not enrolled in school or were made to discontinue their studies. The Shura and the Mula Iman (who is also a prominent faculty member) have reinforced the importance of education, especially for girls, in the community, and the counsel of these respected figures has led to an increase in the number of the students enrolled. As some girls often get married before reaching the eleventh grade, they are often forced to leave school. However, with the intervention of the Shura and the Mula Imam, this statistic is also drastically improving with more girls continuing their education even after getting married.
Shahida is extremely proud of having gained the respect of the elders of the community. Even though she’s only thirty three years of age, she is successfully running the school and feels fully supported by the Shura, even commenting that her opinions hold more weight in their eyes than her male counterparts. Shahida believes that this is the true mark of the beginning of female empowerment in their area as women are now being given more concrete and responsible roles in society.
Although the school is now running smoothly, Shahida adds that there are still a few complications that are yet to be resolved. The school runs in two shifts – male students come to the school in the second shift. Shahida feels that it is prudent to have segregation between the boys and girls as is dictated by their customs. She also stresses the urgent need for more equipment and material for the science courses being taught at the school. In addition, she feels the need for a more thorough training session for the teachers in subjects such as chemistry, biology and physics as those subjects are the ones that the students have the most difficulty in comprehending. Sanitation facilities are also needed for the school.
Shahida states that the women of Pakistan and Afghanistan should never underestimate their own worth. “The women have made this school a functional and reputable institution,” she says. Shahida, who has brought about a wave of welcome change, believes that women can work in any field and excel at it. Community World Service Asia looks forward to continuing its work with Shahida and her colleagues to ensure that the girls of Nangarhar have the opportunity to an education.