Everyone in the room is a little edgy and uncomfortable as we sit on the floor opposite each other. The reason is simple: I am a man and an outsider and this is rural northeastern Afghanistan, a place where tradition, culture and religion play a huge role in every aspect of life.
Fifteen-year-old Zainab (not her real name) sits beside her father, Mohmod. Culturally, at this age she must cover her face and should not typically be in the company of a man outside of her family. But because I am with two female colleagues, Mohmod has made an exception and Zainab has permission to speak with me.
The only girl of seven children, Zainab tells us that she left school after fifth grade, when she was just 12 years old. She now works in the family garden and manages their small nursery of saplings and trees. “I still like to learn,” she says, her eyes bright with wit and intelligence. “I read my brothers’ textbooks and every evening, I ask them questions about what they learned that day in school.”
When I ask what her dreams are for the future, I am secretly hoping for something beautiful and inspirational. Instead, she glances guardedly at her father and says that she would perhaps like to manage a bigger nursery someday.
Zainab, like many girls in rural Afghanistan, had to leave school when she reached puberty. At this time, it becomes generally unacceptable for girls to be taught by a man unless women are present. Because there is an extreme shortage of female teachers, especially in rural Afghanistan, this means that for millions of girls like Zainab, their entry into womanhood results in their exit from the education system.
In 2001, there were virtually no girls at all in school here, and no women teachers. The Back to School campaign, a joint initiative by the Afghan government and United Nations, helped change the education landscape dramatically over the following decade. Primary school enrollment has surged and the most recent figures show that 46 percent of girls are now attending primary school. However, as reflected in Zainab’s case, attendance drops to less than a quarter of all girls after age 12, and trends steadily downward through secondary school.
Statistics on the number of female teachers in Afghanistan are mixed. According to the Ministry of Education, 38 percent of teachers in the country are women. However, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that only six percent of Afghan women aged 25 or older have received any formal education — and the majority of them live in Kabul and other urban areas.
In a corner of one of four large canvas tents, pitched on some flat ground in a remote northeastern valley, sits the potential solution to the problem. A group of about 20 nine-year-old girls recite lines from a traditional story about a thirsty bird and its quest for water. This is grade two, the only girl’s class in this unlikely looking school, which caters to over 300 children from eight villages.
Hamara, like almost every other girl we spoke to in the class, would like to be a teacher. An orphan, she lives with relatives and walks almost 40 minutes each way to school every day. “I want to come back here and teach the girls in my village,” she says confidently.
And there it is — the aspirational, inspirational line I had been seeking. The dream of a better future and a new way. Unfortunately, Hamara’s dream hangs in the balance.
Qualified teachers are hard to come by here and in this school there are no female teachers. The girls’ grade two class is being supervised by Said Mohammad, the school guard. Like any group of nine-year-olds anywhere in the world, they are talkative, giggly and enthusiastic. But for them, time is running out. In a few years they will become young women and, without intervention and help from outside, their dreams of learning and teaching could so easily disappear into the thin, mountain air.
There are some green shoots of change beginning to show. Here in the valley, work will begin very shortly on a new school building, which is expected to be completed before the winter. “We are working hard to address some of the most pressing issues facing young women here,” says Rebecca Nyamori, who designs and helps to manage education programs for Concern Worldwide.
“We will be training teachers and encouraging parents to place greater value on their children’s education, particularly for girls, through adult literacy and other opportunities,” she tells us. “As part of that program, Concern will train local women as teachers’ aides, providing a female presence in classrooms and a chance to break that repetitive cycle which robs girls of the chance to achieve their dreams.”
Meanwhile, across the mountains, Zainab is back at work, weeding the family garden and tending to the saplings. Her dream, of managing a bigger nursery someday, is in its own way ambitious, but also delicate. Later this year, after she has turned 16, she will be sent to Iran to marry an older man, chosen for her by her father.