This article has been published in Enabling Education Review – Special Issue 2015 – Inclusive Education Advocacy
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Girls’ education in Afghanistan

This article describes the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee’s Girls’ Education Project, which has used a range of different advocacy approaches to raise awareness of girls’ right to education. The project has had a particular focus on ensuring that advocacy messages were contextually and culturally sensitive, and has succeeded in getting many girls back into school.

The Girls’ Education Project has been conducted by the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC) with support of GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) in two districts (Dawlatabad and Khulm) in Balkh Province, Northern Afghanistan. The project sought to mobilise communities and raise awareness about the need for girls’ education and the importance of female teachers.

Even when girls have access to primary education, it is common for parents to stop them going to school when they reach 12 or 13 years of age. Part of the problem is that there are not enough female teachers. Of roughly 220,000 teachers in Afghanistan, only 30% are female. When girls reach puberty, it is typically forbidden for them to be taught by male teachers.

Negative attitudes are perhaps the biggest barrier to girls’ education in Afghanistan. Attitudes are influenced by a lack of knowledge and understanding about the benefits of educating girls – people often fear what they don’t know or understand. Some families and communities fear that schooling will promote foreign values and ideas. Some think that girls’ education is wrong or inappropriate because they think it goes against their culture and traditions. There is a lack of awareness in many communities about girls’ right to education and the opportunities that education can bring for girls and their families.

Gender awareness workshop for a PTA, Balkh Province, Dawlatabad District

These challenges are faced all over Afghanistan, not just in Balkh province.

Advocacy objectives 
Our project sought to:

  • raise awareness in school communities about the importance of girls’ education, gender equality and human rights
  • ensure girls are supported to attend school and complete their education through secondary and high school levels (preventing drop-outs)
  • enable female students to go to teacher training colleges so they can become teachers.

Raising awareness about girls’ education was addressed both from an Islamic perspective and in relation to international norms and frameworks. We discussed the importance of Education For All (EFA) in general and specifically for girls. We also addressed education in emergencies – how can people cope during an emergency situation (e.g. floods)?

Target groups
Our target groups for the Girls’ Education Project included:

  • religious leaders and other community leaders
  • Community Development Councils (CDCs) – CDCs are also known colloquially in Afghanistan as Shuras. Shuras are usually made up of seven people and they are responsible for making decisions about the development of the communities they represent
  • Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) – also known as school Shuras. PTAs generally have 15 members including teachers, parents and community/religious leaders
  • students
  • teachers and school managers (e.g. principles/head teachers)
  • parents.

School Shuras and religious leaders (e.g. Mullahs, religious volunteers, and religious studies teachers) were selected as a target group because they have a very important role in motivating and encouraging people in their communities. Involving them was a key advocacy strategy. People tend to follow what religious leaders say. They have a lot of power and influence. When we work with teachers, they have influence over their students and over parents.

Advocacy activities
Our work with school communities was done in several steps. We planned activities that addressed the issue of girls’ education from various perspectives, using a range of different methods and entry points. This included facilitating small and large-scale meetings to raise awareness, holding more detailed and professional discussions with significant stakeholders, using role models, and developing an action research approach to identify and address challenges.

To start with we liaised with the district education departments in Dawlatabad and Khulm districts to select six school communities in each district to work with. We then gauged their level of understanding of the issues. We sought their perspectives and tried to identify their challenges and problems. We used focus group discussions to do this.

Meetings with key stakeholders
A training session for PTAs/school Shuras helped them understand their roles and responsibilities, and enabled them to discuss girls’ education and gender issues. We discussed gender norms in Afghan society to help them determine why it is valuable for women to have more active roles in society, beyond their traditional domestic roles. We also worked with them to make school development plans.

Through workshops, 60 religious leaders from 12 areas across the two districts were made more aware of gender issues and girls’ education. We encouraged them to discuss the importance of girls’ education with their communities during Friday prayers and through other community interactions (such as meetings with parents in their homes).

A large-scale girls’ education awareness-raising meeting involved more than 200 people, including the district governor and district education officer. We shared our key messages about girls’ education. We were also invited to visit the communities and people’s homes to share our messages.

We organised a ‘round table’ discussion for district education officers, the governor and religious leaders, staff from the Department of Rural Affairs (DRA), members of the media and other people involved in education. Everybody was given an opportunity to discuss any relevant ideas.

Using role models
‘Job fair’ workshops in schools were used to motivate female students. We invited students from grades 9-12. We also invited female teachers, doctors and engineers, along with other successful women. Guest speakers shared their own stories about education and encouraged the female students to continue their studies.

Community action
Community action teams were established – consisting of the district education departments, school Shuras, CDCs and religious leaders – to monitor our activities and advocate for girls’ education. We further engaged school communities in a reflective cycle – supporting them to identify their own challenges and problems and then develop and implement strategies for addressing them.

School Shuras worked on their own gender projects, engaging within their communities to identify challenges, solutions and the people who would be responsible for implementing these solutions. One school Shura used this reflective process to work with parents to bring 18 girls back into school.

Participant in project-based leaning programme,
Badakhshan Province, Argo District

Advocacy messages
Our advocacy work stressed the following key messages:
We sought to discuss girls’ education from an Islamic perspective. Islam does not prevent anyone from achieving an education. There are many verses from the Koran and hadiths (commentary from Islamic scholars on the Koran) which speak about the importance of education for both females and males.
We stressed that girls should attend school and complete their primary and secondary education, and that we need more female teachers in Afghanistan to enable this to happen. We need more girls to be educated because we need female teachers, doctors, engineers and other professionals.
We also shared messages highlighting that girls need safe and accessible schools if we are to increase the rates of girls’ educational enrolment and completion.

Before we met with them, some religious leaders thought we were sharing un-Islamic ideas. Once we had spoken with them they understood that what we were advocating is not against Islam. This is why we start such meetings by discussing girls’ education from an Islamic perspective and only later do we discuss international norms and frameworks. Now most religious leaders really support us while in the past they would not talk with our staff.

At one meeting with religious leaders, government officials and other community members, we invited a group of female students to sing an educational song. Participants began to clap at the end of the song, but one Mullah objected and stated that such clapping for the girls was not permissible in Islam. The district governor countered that we should not consider this behaviour to be against Islamic rules; it was showing support for the girls, who should not be discouraged from learning. The district governor highlighted that there is no verse in the holy Koran against clapping. His challenge to the Mullah was important, as it showed publicly that it was not just NAC upholding views in favour of girls’ education.

The district education officer in Dawlatabad became proactive in advocating on behalf of girls’ education, encouraging parents to send their girls to school.

In the past, many school Shuras did not have regular meetings. The project helped to give school Shuras a purpose by defining their roles and responsibilities. Now they have monthly meetings and we have been following these up. Teachers are also becoming more engaged in our activities. We have seen a drop in the number of out-of-school girls since the project started.

Crucially the project has helped to boost girls’ confidence and given them a stronger voice. For example, girls aged 16-18 years performed a drama at our large awareness event and sang a national song. Girls had previously not been that visible.

Not all of the educational exclusion issues dealt with through the project have been specifically affecting girls. In one community the families identified that their school did not have drinking water, so they considered how to solve this. They went to the CDC and head of the village and raised the issue. The head of the village said he did not have enough money to dig a well, but offered donkeys to bring water from other sites to the school. This was a temporary solution, although the community decided to raise money to build a well as a longer-term solution.

We know education is a long-term process and it will take more time and effort to make this project sustainable and bring more positive changes.

We held only one to three training workshops with the school Shuras. This has given us time to get to know each other, share some information and support them, but the impact of the workshops has not been as significant as we would like.

Community members’ awareness about education is very low generally, so some parents find it very difficult to understanding the benefits of education for both their daughters and sons. They feel their children could be earning money for the household now, and struggle to see the wider, longer-term benefits that education could bring.

The security situation has been a problem at times. We have not always been able to organise our workshops when we wanted to.

Unfortunately, there are not always jobs available when male and female students graduate from teacher training colleges or higher education. This is a particular problem for female teacher training graduates. An increasing number of young women are entering teacher training, but many find it difficult to secure teaching jobs. Jobs are still primarily held by men, and most women do not have the freedom to move to places where there are job vacancies, away from their home community. Such graduates become demoralised. For some families, vocational training/skills seem more relevant and valuable than further or higher education, although we try to share examples of people who have graduated and gone on to be successful.

There are also ongoing resource challenges. Many families struggle to provide clothing and other support for their children to go to school. Many children work, and boys may have to fetch firewood rather than go to school. For some communities, the nearest schools are far away; it may not be safe or practical for children, especially girls, to travel so far to school.

Lessons learned 
In addition to relating stories of positive role models, we also use our own life stories when families question the relevance and value of education for their girls (and boys). One member of our team is a widow. She shares her experience of using her education to get a good job which means she now supports her family.

In order to be respectful of culture, especially when we are dealing with sensitive issues like gender and girls’ education, we are careful not to go directly to the point. If we jump straight in to gender discussions, the first reaction is often that these are Western ideas. Instead we think carefully about the language we use. We keep things simple and go step by step so that people accept what we are sharing and understand them in relation to their own culture and context.

Recommendations and next steps
We have highlighted several things that we need to focus on, and advocate for, in future:

  • More time is needed for further work with school communities/Shuras.
  • More focus is needed in rural areas.
  • There is a need for infrastructure development to support girls’ enrolment (e.g. more classrooms and toilets).
  • Education and literacy opportunities are needed for young women who are already too old to start school.
  • Teaching methods generally need improving and diversifying, so that teachers can respond more flexibly to diversity in their classrooms.
  • Stronger links should be made with our other projects on health and sustainable agriculture, so that we are working more effectively towards integrated rural development and poverty reduction.
  • We need to keep developing a greater sense of community ownership over the girls’ education work.

The Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC) is member-based organisation founded 35 years ago, with the fundamental belief in the principles of freedom, independence and a better life for the Afghan people. NAC aims to support the long-term interests of Afghanistan and to strengthen the basis for development and self-sufficiency through knowledge, democracy and human rights, sustainable management of natural resources, and improved health for all.

Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC) – Education and Communication Team

Omida’s story

Omida is a 17-year-old girl. She studied in school until the grade 10, but then her family prevented her from studying further.

Omida says, that her father told her not to go school. He said “Now you can read and write, it is enough for you. Just sit home and help your mother”.

She explained: “One day, after three months, my father was called by the school Shura to participate in the PTA meetings. The PTA motivated him and talked about the benefits of education. The Mullah also talked about girls’ education with an Islamic perspective and encouraged the community. When my father came home after the meeting he sent me back to school and now I am learning my lessons well and I am never absent.

I know that there are problems in my community, and people do not let their daughters go to school when the girls reach 12, due to a lack of female teachers. Now that I go to school again, I will continue my education. I want to become a teacher in the future to solve the community’s problems and support my family. I thank NAC for the girls’ education project that brings these changes in our lives.”