Opening up education to girls in Iran’s poorest province
People here live off the land and, without rain, many of their goats have died and their small crops of wheat and other grain have withered. After years of struggling to cope with an inadequate water supply, many farmers were forced to sell their herds of goats, their main source of income, and look for work as manual labourers. Employment is scarce, conditions are unpredictable and the pay is low. In fact, Sistan and Baluchistan has the worst indicators for life expectancy, adult literacy, primary school enrolment, access to improved water and sanitation, infant and child mortality in Iran.
All family members are expected to do what they can to bring home income, and this means children are often taken out of school. Girls must do the household chores and look after younger siblings while boys run errands and do odd jobs to earn money.
As a result of isolation and poverty, many communities view education as a luxury and cultural attitudes towards women mean that more girls than boys are denied an education.
“My mother didn’t let me continue my education because she told me I had to work at home,” says 15-year-old Asma Aboos, as she sits cross-legged in her one-room, mud-brick home. “I went to primary school but was not allowed to continue into secondary school. I wash dishes, clean the vegetables, cook, sew and collect water. I wish I could go back to school and become a teacher.”
“If the secondary school was in the village, I wouldn’t have minded so much,” says Asma’s mother, Bari Khatoum. “But because there is no school nearby, Asma would have had to catch a bus and that is not good.”
Girls here are not just disadvantaged by a lack of education. Old traditions mean that many of them face the prospect of early marriage (marriage for 12-year-old girls is common and they are powerless to refuse). Once married, their chances of an education decrease even more as their husbands are usually unwilling to let them leave the house unescorted and want them to concentrate on running their new households.
Even in the few cases in which a girl is able to continue her education there are other problems to overcome. Sistan and Baluchistan is Iran’s poorest province and in this harsh environment with limited resources there is a desperate lack of experienced teachers, especially female ones. The shortage is so acute that in many villages young men are assigned to work as emergency teachers during their military service.
To help combat such geographical and gender disparities, UNICEF partnered with Iran’s Ministry of Education to devise a strategy aimed not only at keeping girls in school, but also at trying to develop a more participatory approach to educational activities.
Dozens of female assistant teachers were recruited from the community and trained to teach subjects such as hygiene, basic mathematics and science, literacy, life-skills education, school preparatory activities and storytelling. Training was also given to teachers on how to facilitate peer education, multi-grade classes and activity-based teaching. In order to enhance community participation, weekly after-school classes were held in villages with groups of young girls already enrolled in the school system supervising the activities. The results have been astounding: girls’ enrolment in primary school increased nearly threefold in one year.
“Now that there are more female teachers, the situation for girls has improved a lot,” says Mehri Maleki Meshkini, a young teacher, who dresses in the traditional black chador. “In our classes we try to discuss serious issues like early marriage, so that the girls become more aware of the situation. But it is difficult because the men in the family decide everything.”
Traditional attitudes are slowly beginning to change, however, as fathers see how their daughters are engaging in positive activities. Religious leaders have been asked to spread the word at Friday prayers and help transform old traditions into a new source of hope for girls in Iran.