Afghanistan

UNICEF-supported literacy centres empower Afghan women and girls

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Walther
A girl student at a UNICEF-supported learning centre in Afghanistan, where five out of six women remain illiterate.

By Cornelia Walther

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan, 2 February 2010 – Farida Dastgeer, 65, is learning how to read. She is one of 20 women and girls who gather six times a week for two hours, in the living room of one of the students, to improve their literacy.

“When I was young, my father didn’t allow me to go to school. Now I am old and my family accepts my wish to learn, but my head is tired,” says Ms. Dastgeer.

The Afghan Ministry of Education started literacy centres for women and girls two decades ago to provide them with basic, informal education. The centres were meant to bridge a gap for remote villagers who lived far from schools.

But other obstacles – including traditional attitudes about a woman’s place in the home and, more recently, the influence of the Taliban – have kept most women from reaping the benefits of such centres. Today, five out of six Afghan women remain illiterate.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Walther
At a literacy centre in northern Afghanistan, volunteer teacher Mariam, 14 (right), teaches an adult student how to count, as another student, Farida Dastgeer, 65, looks on.

Overcoming traditional resistance
Since 2008, UNICEF has been working with its partners to improve those numbers by supporting hundreds of informal literacy centres throughout Afghanistan.

Still, forming a female study group can be a difficult task in an environment that is often hostile to girls’ and women’s education. Women are asked not just if they are willing to join, but whether their male relatives will give them permission.

“My father does not know that I am here;” explains Arzo, an eight-year-old girl at one of the centres. “It’s my mother who has begged the teacher to take me in.”

Once the students are identified, volunteers must be found to teach them. With a small incentive fee paid by UNICEF, these teachers – who themselves have at least a basic education – are willing to share knowledge with their peers.

In provinces affected by nutrition insecurity the UN World Food Programme has joined the initiative, providing food commodities for teachers and students.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Walther
Women and girls attend informal classes at a UNICEF-supported literacy centre in northern Afghanistan.

Life of a young teacher
Mariam, 14, is a volunteer teacher at one of the literacy centres. She is in the tenth grade and plans to invest her incentive payment in further education, with the hope of becoming a professor.

Since April 2009, Mariam has been teaching her class mathematics and how to read and write in Dari, the local language.

“A typical day in my life starts at 3 a.m.,” she says. “I do my ablutions and pray. From 5 a.m., I clean the house and help my mother with breakfast. Then I am walking to school, which takes about 30 minutes. Our literacy class starts at 2 p.m. at the house next door. Before the lesson starts, I check the homework of my students.”

A journey begins
Although her students began reading only months ago, adds Mariam, “I have seen a lot of changes since.” As her comment suggests, the nine months that students spend at the literacy classes are the beginning of a journey for many of them.

Arzo, for example, says she wants to continue her education – but first, she will have to convince her father to let her pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. If she fails, she may join the ranks of Afghan child brides.

For Ms. Dastgeer, the 65-year-old student, her new knowledge may not alter her life dramatically, but it will add a new dimension.

“My whole life, I felt excluded from what’s going on,” she says. “This is about to change now. Next year, I will be able to read the announcements in the newspaper and the price tags in shops.”


 

 

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