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Unique education programmes brighten the future for Afghanistan's young women

© UNAMA/2010/Burgard
Young students at a community-based school supported by UNICEF and one of its non-governmental partners in Herat, Afghanistan.

By Farida Ayari

HERAT, Afghanistan, 10 August 2010 – The city of Herat is the setting for ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ – Khaled Hosseini’s powerful, best-selling novel about the harsh conditions of women in Afghanistan.

While life for many women in the country remains difficult, today Herat’s Gowarshad High School – named for the powerful Timurid queen who founded the city – is full of confident young girls who are well aware of their rights.

A voice for young women

The school’s principal, Aziza Popal, established an innovative girls’ sports forum at Gowarshad with UNICEF support. In addition to practicing sport, young students  at the forum debate passionately about the challenges that face them – including their future as women in one of the most traditional and conservative societies in the world.

© UNAMA/2010/Burgard
Parmilla, the captain of a girls' basketball team at Gowarshad High School in Herat, Afghanistan, presents her team.

“If a woman is educated, she can effectively participate in society and transfer her knowledge to her children,” said Fariba, the school’s volleyball captain. “A society must not be led by men only.”

“The holy Koran mentions in many verses that education is equally important for both men and women,” added Liza, a young basketball player.

Parmila, the captain of Liza’s basketball team, is also an accomplished martial arts trainer. “Women should not be the only ones to make sacrifices,” she said. “Husbands and wives should work together and share responsibilities.”

For her part, Naziha, whose older brother once tried to force her to drop out of the basketball team, recited the old axiom “behind every successful man there is a woman.” Everyone applauded.

Toward formal schooling

Peter Crowley, who was appointed as the new UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan earlier this year, recently made his first visit to Herat. He said he was thrilled by the self-assuredness and energy of the forum members. 

And strides are being made in giving young women across Afghanistan a more powerful voice. In the impoverished suburb of Jibril, the Bangladeshi non-governmental organization BRAC runs a community-based school where girls who have not been able to enter the formal education system can get a basic education. There girls are tutored for two years, at which point they are prepared to join the formal school system at the fourth-grade level.

UNICEF provides BRAC schools with educational materials, including recorded episodes of a Dari-language version of its ‘Meena’ cartoon series, a successful advocacy and teaching tool developed in South Asia. Like other viewers of the cartoon programme, girls at the BRAC school are fond of Meena, a spirited nine-year-old girl who braves the world tackling issues that affect children just like themselves.

BRAC currently supports over 2,500 community-based schools in Afghanistan, with some 84,500 students – mainly girls – enrolled. About 95 per cent of the girls at the schools join the formal education system, and most are generally above the level of their peers who have studied continuously in formal schools.

“The education of girls is the smartest investment a country can make, and it is wonderful to learn that almost all of the girls who enrol in these community-based schools go on to enrol in the formal school system,” Mr. Crowley said during his visit. “If many more of the young women attending Afghanistan’s schools today are anything like the members of this group, the future of the country is bright,” he added.



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