Education Project Equips Children for Life
August 21, 2012
Thirteen-year-old Raihana Ahmadi is at the heart of sweeping changes to education in Afghanistan.
When the ninth-grade biology student points to a plastic model of the human heart, she is not only sharing a lesson with her female classmates, but also demonstrating the importance of a quality education, especially for girls, in this country.
Watching the class at Kabul’s Sorya School, principal Naseema Saberi says: “This is my dream in life. I have always wanted to educate and empower the young women of Afghanistan, so they can serve the younger generation of this country and make it a better place.”
Saberi says her wish is coming true, thanks to the World Bank’s Education Quality Improvement Program, or EQUIP, co-financed by the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). The objective of the program is to increase access to education, particularly for girls, through school grants, teacher training, curriculum development, and community involvement.
Through EQUIP, more than 1,600 schools are being constructed or rehabilitated in Afghanistan. Girls’ enrollment has increased to 2.7 million from less than 200,000 in 2002, and boys’ attendance to about 4.4 million from less than a million.
Friends of education
Now a bustling brick complex in the capital city’s west end, the Sorya School offers classes to 6,000 students, both boys and girls, who attend in two daily shifts. But not long ago, the building, which stood for almost 50 years, was simply a mass of rubble. Civil war and subsequent Taliban rule in the 1990s destroyed the country’s education system, and strictly forbade girls’ attendance.
“If you had come here back then, you would have seen nothing, not a chair to sit on, no books, no sign of anything,” recalls Saberi.
During this dark time, Saberi was so determined to continue teaching that she ran a “secret school” for girls. Today, some of these young women are university professors and teachers in their own right, she says.
“But if they had been caught, they would have been killed,” observes Abdul Ghafar Moarefdost, who currently has six granddaughters at Saberi’s school. The literal translation of Moarefdost’s name is “friend of education.”
“No one can ask me if education is important,” says Moarefdost, laughing. “It is essential in our lives that not only boys, but also girls, go to school.” Today, he is a teacher of sports medicine at a Kabul university, but he values time spent on the Sorya School’s advisory “shura” of 16 community members including parents, elders, and two students. They meet weekly to discuss the cases of girls still left behind, and other issues facing the school.
When a daughter becomes a mother, she is both teacher and school for her children, so if she doesn’t know things, then how can she raise her children?
Barriers to education for girls
Two barriers often exist for female students, explains the principal. First, parents fear insurgents will harm their daughters. “In the provinces, schools get burned down, and girls have acid thrown on them for attending school,” says Saberi. “But we tell people the only way to improve our society is through education.” Armed security guards and safe transportation are arranged for students here.
The other problem is that many parents are uneducated themselves, the principal notes. “Some people are still living as we did 100 years ago, and they don’t understand how important it is to send daughters to school, so we have to bring them here, talk, and try to show them.”
Frequently, Saberi tells parents: “When a daughter becomes a mother, she is both teacher and school for her children, so if she doesn’t know things, then how can she raise her children?”
Now parents are so enthusiastic about the program that they eagerly give books, carpets, trees, chairs, and other generous donations, says Haji Noorzai, another school council member.
“With the support of EQUIP and the World Bank, parents have realized that this should be like home for their children, so they have come together and worked hard to make this place nice,” says Noorzai.
He estimates parents have now donated three times the value of the EQUIP funding, and word is spreading of the school’s success.
Challenges to school success
Despite steady progress during the past decade, challenges in terms of enhancing access, equity, and quality remain. Roughly 50 percent of schools do not have proper buildings. More than 50 percent of the teachers have not graduated from Grade 12. In addition, provision of textbooks and incentives for teachers are also minimal, prompting high dropout and absenteeism rates among students and teachers.
Furthermore, education outcomes are stark in insecure provinces. Around 500 schools across the country were shut because of insecurity in the past year. Female participation in education as students, teachers and school administrators is low in rural and insecure areas.
Over the next decade, the demand for education will outpace the investments in education, which are about 1 percent of the GDP. As more and more students enroll and graduate from the schooling system, the already inadequate education resources will be stretched.
'I want to help'
Seventeen-year-old Rubaba Samadi takes a bus across Kabul to attend 11th grade here each day because it’s “the best school in the city,” she says. She plans to be a lawyer, so other girls will get the same chance. “I want to study law, because I want to make sure all girls know their rights,” says Samadi.
Her friend Negina Rahimy, also 17, is hoping to study medicine. “I want to be a doctor because our country is backward. There are few hospitals and people are poor, so I want to help make things really good,” says Rahimy.
Standing in the courtyard as a stream of female students pass by, Mullah Azizullah said his three girls are at the school. He hopes one daughter will be a doctor, one will do religious studies, and the third might join the army.
“I want the best for all my children, not just the boys, but daughters, you know, they’re special,” he says with a chuckle.
Asked why insurgents invoke religion to discourage female education, Aziz says:
“Their problem is ignorance. Their interpretation of Islam is simply wrong, as is their interpretation of society and what is good for it.”
“These people know nothing about the real Islam. As good Muslims, we all must study and get educated, and if we don’t, that’s just not right or fair.”
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