I drew deep inspiration from the Kabul Women’s Association, which began 10 years ago as a feeding program for Afghan widows. It now mobilizes 10,000 women who learn about their rights (in regard to employment, inheritance and other issues), develop their own livelihoods — particularly with regard to livestock — and speak up about key issues such as girls’ education and child marriage. In the process, they solve not only their own problems and those of their families’, but also their community’s too.
One of the women, I’ll call her Basima (I’m not using real names to protect the women’s safety), said that her brother-in-law would not let her daughters go to school. Unfortunately, that’s too common in places that undervalue girls’ education in favor of boys’. And when that place is war-battered like Afghanistan, the barriers only become more entrenched. But by confronting these challenges head-on, the Kabul Women’s Association has helped assure that Basima’s three daughters, once forbidden to attend school, stayed in the classroom. They now attend university, even though Basima herself remains illiterate.
Her inability to read, however, has hardly obstructed her efforts to write a new chapter in her community’s development: Basima has become a respected advocate, in spite of the risks that surface when women challenge long-held traditional roles. Among other efforts, she successfully petitioned local authorities to deliver electricity to a 38-household neighborhood. And her daughters plan to return to Basima’s home to teach children to read.
When I traveled outside of Kabul, to Parwan Province in northeast Afghanistan, I met more women — and children — who are dreaming big. At one school, when asked what they wanted to become when they grew up, all the kids raised their hands to declare their intent to become doctors or teachers. And asked what they like most about school, one eager student yelled: “All the studying!”
Just fifteen years ago, less than a million Afghan children attended school – nearly all of them boys. With critical support from the U.S., over 16,000 schools have been built and 150,000 teachers trained – more than a third women. As a result, over 9 million children today attend school and nearly half of them are girls.
But we can’t let those gains slip away.
That starts by supporting incredible teachers like the ones I spoke to in Parwan. One teacher said she grew up in the local community and, thanks to a greater emphasis on girls’ education, was able to complete two years of college. “Now I want to serve my people,” she told me, “especially girls.” She and the other staff plan to add classrooms, a science lab and maybe even a small playground.
Listening to her, I found myself thinking how much hope and progress comes from so little. It costs about $300 to send an Afghan girl or a boy to elementary school for one year, including teacher training, classroom expenses and curriculum. Over the past decade, CARE has engaged 125,000 children in community-based schools, feeding their hopes for a quality education and, with it, endless opportunity to shape Afghanistan’s future.