Beating the odds to get an education

Partially paralyzed at birth, Afghan girl battles long distances and tradition to get to school

By Sahraa Karimi and Nicole Foster
Khadija, writing on a blackboard
UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Sheida
01 December 2016

BAMYAN, Afghanistan, 1 December 2016 — For 13-year old Khadija, the walk to school is more challenging than for most other young girls. Partially paralyzed at birth, she makes the daily 50-minute commute by foot to attend classes at an Accelerated Learning Centre near her village in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan. Winters in these remote expanses can last up to six months.

“One winter morning last year, when everything was covered in snow, I came to class and no one was there. That’s when I saw Khadija walking slowly towards the school carrying her backpack,” says Maryam, Khadija’s teacher.

“She fell a few times until she finally reached the building, but she still came. I could barely hold back my tears. She is a brave girl,” she recalls with emotion that is still palpable.

Khadija, like most girls in her community, was not able to attend school at an earlier age: there simply wasn’t one around, not even within a remotely accessible radius.

But this changed when an Accelerated Learning Centre opened in the largely agrarian village of Peer Dad, giving boys and girls an opportunity to get an education and eventually integrate the formal government schools.

Khadija and her friend studying at an Accelerated Learning Centre
UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Sheida
Khadija, 13, with a classmate at the Accelerated Learning Centre they attend in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

At 13, Khadija is in second grade and has a lot to catch up, which is not unusual in many remote villages across the country. The community-based Accelerated Learning Centres are actually structured in a way that allows students to complete the equivalent of two years’ worth of classes in one year.

Khadija was born prematurely. With no hospital or health facility readily accessible, her mother gave birth at home and Khadija partially lost mobility in her legs. She studies hard and wants to show others that her disability is not an obstacle.

“I am so happy that we have this school in our village. Maybe one day I can become a doctor, or work with something that can help my parents and other people,” says Khadija.

Located primarily in remote areas, Accelerated Learning Centres are part of UNICEF-supported community-based education programmes that give children and adolescents a second chance at education closer to home in under-served communities that have been affected by insecurity, lack of transportation, displacement, or inadequate education infrastructures.

A supportive environment

Khadija doing her homework
UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Sheida
Khadija, 13, does her homework in her house as her father looks on. He has supported her attending classes at a community-based Accelerated Learning Centre in the Central Highlands province of Afghanistan.

Deep-rooted traditions and cultural barriers have long impeded girls from receiving an education in Afghanistan. In addition, young women are expected to continue helping with household chores, so attending classes and finding time to study are not easy commitments for Khadija and her classmates.

But Khadija’s family has supported her education.

“I wished that a day would come when my girl could at least read and write. I couldn’t do anything for her, even though she is the only child in our home. But I can do this. I am very happy that she is going to school and learning,” says Khadija’s father.

“Whenever she has free time, she reads her books,” he adds. “Sometimes she also reads for me.”

Khadija and her teacher at ALC in Bamyan
UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Sheida
Khadija, 13, with her teacher at the Accelerated Learning Centre she attends in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

UNICEF supports the Ministry of Education at central, provincial, and district levels to establish Accelerated Learning Centres (ALCs) in thirteen provinces across Afghanistan. Nearly 1,700 ALCs have been established since 2015.