From dream to reality

Afghan Girls Robotic Team turns an idea into an innovation

Narges Ghafary
UNICEF Afghanistan/2020
21 July 2020

Herat, Afghanistan, 15 July 2020 - When the idea of making a ventilator was assigned to Somaya,17, and her fellow teammates, only a few people believed that this is possible.

"We made it. Our dream became a reality," says Somaya with excitement. "It is possible because of our determination, hard work, and dedication."

As part of its Adolescent and Youth Engagement Strategic Framework, UNICEF supported the Afghan girls' robotic team.  The team, which is known as ‘Afghan Dreamers’, continuously pursue their aspirations. It comprises of five adolescent girls aged between 14 and 17, led by Somaya, who is the team leader.

Living in the western province of Herat, where Afghanistan's first case of Covid-19 was reported, members of the team were tasked to design a ventilator. 

"It was a hard decision to accept the challenge,” says Somaya.  “Since the ventilator can save lives amid this pandemic, we accepted the responsibility.”

Afghan dreamers initiated their project by conducting research online, looking for an open-source design ventilator.

"It was not an easy task," giggles Somaya. "We were racing against time to come up with a prototype of our own to support COVID19 response in Herat province."

After three months, Afghan dreamers developed an automated bag valve mask ventilation unit.  It came in handy since it will address the shortage of ventilator devices in saving lives during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan.

"We used locally available second-hand car spare parts to assemble the device," says Somaya overwhelmed with excitement. "We worked around the clock to fill a gap on a direly needed ventilator to treat COVID-19 acute cases." 

UNICEF Afghanistan/2020
Somaya is explaining how the ventilator and other devices they developed for COVID-19 Response work to UNICEF Herat CFO and Herat Governor

Remain confident in the face of challenges

Afghan dreamer's journey in developing the ventilator seemed insurmountable, but their hopes and courage remained alive. The girls went through numerous ups and downs.  The unavailability of critical tools and required parts in the country, and most importantly, some team members, including the team leader, contracted the virus.

"There were days where the project did not progress as desired, simply due to missing simple tools such as a screw," says Somaya. "And what made it worse, is that shops were closed due to lockdown as a result of COVID19 pandemic."

 To overcome such challenges, Somaya and her team members had to call shop keepers to beg them to open their store. 

"We never gave up," utters Somaya. "Our motivation to save lives was an unquenchable drive."

The most challenging part of the team's work was to find two sensors: a pressure transducer that converts pressure measurements from the breath into electrical signals, and a microprocessor that processes those signals into a pump of air.

"With UNICEF's support, we finally got a pressure transducer to get the job done," says Somaya gratefully.

"Equipping adolescent girls with critical skills, empowers generations to come," says David Igulu, Chief of UNICEF Field Office in Herat, Afghanistan. "UNICEF will continue to empower girls and boys to build a better future."

In the coming weeks, the team will travel to Afghanistan’s capital Kabul to present and test the device in the Ministry of Public Health team's presence. They will be the first group of adolescent girls in the world to design a ventilator.

"We hope that the Ministry of Public Health will approve the prototype so that local factories can replicate the ventilator," says Somaya with optimism.

Once approved, the prototype will not replace a real ventilator.  But, it will be used in emergency cases, where no ventilators are available.

The vast majority of girls in Afghanistan are prone to child abuse, including child marriage, and are faced with a life confined within the four walls of their houses.  Somaya and her team are proud to reflect a different story about adolescent girls in Afghanistan.

"I had classmates who dropped out of school due to early marriage," says Somaya with a sigh. "I know how much they loved to continue their education and reach their full potential, but they could not."

A UNICEF report showed that girls account for 60 per cent of the 3.7 million children out of school in Afghanistan.  In some of the worst affected provinces, up to 85 per cent of girls do not attend school.

"I hope that our initiative will inspire parents to keep their children, especially girls, in school and to help them realize their dreams," explains Somaya. "I want to become an electronic engineer in the future, and I am blessed to have the full support of my mom and dad."