Afghanistan: Bringing Girls (Back) to School

Access and Inclusion January 05, 2016

It’s education, not guns that transform a society, says Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, an Afghan women-led NGO. On November 4, 2015, Dr. Yacoobi received the 2015 WISE Prize for Education during the 7th World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar.

Fondly known as Afghanistan’s mother of education, the 2015 WISE Prize for Education Laureate has spent decades working persistently to rebuild her country’s educational landscape, devastated by decades of war. Her organization, Afghan Institute of Learning, has benefitted nearly 12 million people since its foundation in 1995.

A recent Brookings paper paints optimistic prospects for children in Afghanistan. Indeed much progress has been made since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. However, vast grounds remain to be covered. Persistent gender disparity, lack of infrastructure, shortage of qualified teachers, cultural barriers continue to keep more than three million children, the majority of which are girls, out of school.

But all hope is not lost. New and creative solutions are slowly but steadily breaking down these age-old challenges. A legion of courageous Afghan women – like Dr. Yacoobi – are leading a silent revolution to transform society through education.

A clampdown on education and health programs by the Taliban in the mid-1990s did not deter Dr. Yacoobi from pursuing her ambition to educate and empower Afghan women and children. The demure but intrepid soldier of social change launched Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995 that eventually supported underground home schools for thousands of girls amid a stringent ban on girls’ education.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh is a product of such a school. As a child, Basij-Rasikh would dress as a boy to walk through the streets of Kabul to sit in a secret classroom for girls, housed in living rooms of courageous volunteers. Today she is a young change maker who co-founded School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), the country’s first boarding school for girls in 2008. She is determined to revamp the country’s archaic education system in order to cultivate strong well-qualified leaders, the best in the history of Afghanistan. And for this dream to turn into a reality, Afghan girls must rise.

In comparison to other not-for-profit-organizations, SOLA is in nascent stages but has opened a big window of opportunities for young Afghan women. The organization offers higher education preparation courses and helps graduates get into universities around the world.

I have witnessed the impact of such work up close and personal. I spent a decade in Afghanistan. During this time, I worked for French-Afghan association Afghanistan Libre, founded by Chékéba Hachemi in 1996. The work led by Hachemi’s organization has benefitted tens of thousands girls, especially in areas such as the Panjshir Valley that has been ravaged by nearly three decades of conflict and violence. Hachemi’s organization also launched Roz, Afghanistan’s first-ever magazine to address women issues. For Chékéba Hachemi, Roz isn’t just a magazine. It is a learning tool that informs and educates women about their rights and addresses solutions to their day-to-day problems.

So how are women like Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Chékéba Hachemi (in French) and Shabana Basij-Rasikh succeeding in bringing more girls to school in a country where women continue to battle for rights as simple as moving freely outside their home?

The key component is to involve the community. According to Hachemi, for any program to be effective, members of the community have to take ownership right from the onset, especially parents. “Papa has to be proud of his daughter,” she adds.

Engaged communities open the door to develop better infrastructure and stronger investment in girls’ education. It is important to provide a secure learning environment with the right infrastructure for parents often hesitate to send their girls to school if they have to travel long distances fearing abduction and molestation. In addition very often girls miss out on education because the school, for instance, does not have separate toilets for girls and boys. Next, monetary support like scholarships and easy access to bank loans can also boost enrolments in schools.

But before we set off to build better infrastructure and raise funds to educate girls, we have to take a step back. For starters, it is important to listen and understand the real needs on the ground. Hachemi’s approach focuses on designing solutions tailored to the needs of the community. Be it a high school for girls or a health program for women, every program ensures that it corresponds to the real requirements of the community. Similarly, for Dr. Yacoobi a community-based, holistic approach is key to fostering a respectful environment and for creating economic opportunities.

These are the first steps towards building trust. Once the community understands the value and importance of educating girls and empowering women, it paves the way for a change in mindsets and a cultural shift.

Today 62 million girls are out of school around the world. A vast majority live in conflict and fragile parts of the world like Afghanistan. Giving girls and women access to quality education and equal opportunities goes beyond solving one of the biggest moral challenges facing our generation. Stronger investment, greater community engagement and global collaboration is the only way forward to let girls learn.

Because when women thrive, the world prospers.

This article originally appeared on Forbes