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.