Earlier this year I had the opportunity to return to Afghanistan and it was certainly one of the more challenging assignments I’ve had for some time.
In 2004, I covered the first Presidential Elections and there was a sense of hope and optimism about the future as the Afghani people took their first tentative steps towards democracy. This time I was tasked by aid agency Act for Peace with reporting on their girls’ education program in eastern Afghanistan for their main annual fundraising and advocacy campaign.
There are now 2.4 million Afghan girls enrolled in school, compared to 5,000 in 2001, just before the fall of the Taliban regime. According to the schools I visited attendance is increasing year on year, which is a very positive sign
Above is the fundraising video that was made for Act for Peace’s main donor base in Churches around Australia.
In terms of security and access this was one of the more complex assignments I’ve completed, having to negotiate the multiple issues associated with working in such a hostile environment and the cultural sensitivities, especially in the more rural regions.
After flying into Kabul, Omar the guide/translator, Ahmed, our excellent burly 6ft Pashtun driver and I set off to Jalalabad, traveling at high speed in a beaten up old Toyota Corolla keeping as low a profile as possible through some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. Basing ourselves in the partners compound in Jalalabad, which was constantly being over flown by Apache helicopter gunships and Predator drones, we would visit schools and other projects in rural Laghman and Nangarhar provinces. The partner staff were great hosts who cooked fabulous food and had a very black sense of humour. Before setting out each day the cheerful elderly Afghan director used to wave goodbye and say, ‘Hopefully we’ll see you later then? Anything can happen, this is Afghanistan.” before breaking out into a big smile.
Filmed on a go Pro, a quick video glimpse of life along the road from Jalalabad to Kabul.
Due to the high risk of kidnapping, we could only spend about 15 minutes in any one place so we had to work very quickly. We did manage to spend a bit more time in some of the schools as they were out of the public gaze and the head teachers were incredibly accommodating. Gaining permission to film and photograph the girls and female teachers proved quite difficult for cultural reasons but because of the strong partner relationships there were some schools that did allow us access.
Whilst the increasing attendance numbers are encouraging, Afghan girls and boys still face many barriers to receiving an education. Some of the issues that schools face are high rates of absenteeism due to the security situation and children having to work to support families because of crippling poverty.
There is also a lack of qualified female teachers, which is a major problem in more rural conservative areas where only female teachers can teach girls beyond primary education. Because of this, many of the students said they wanted to either be teachers or doctors when they grow up.
One girl from a school in rural Laghman province said, “ Presently the majority of medical doctors in our area are men. In my village many families do not let their female family members to visit a male doctor. That’s why I want to become a doctor so that women can visit female doctors and consult with them to solve their health issues.“
However, one of the biggest barriers to girls’ education are cultural attitudes that are still present, with families believing that girls should remain at home. One of the key elements of peace building is changing attitudes and behaviours of people and encouraging the local population. Act for Peace and their partners are actively engaged in this by raising community awareness of the importance of education through local Shura Council members and the Parent Teacher Committees.
Jan Muhammad, a 50 year old Shura Council member from Jalalabad, is a clear example of how effective this is. A labourer by trade, he came from a very poor background and had no education but through the advocacy work the local partners implemented he has been convinced education is important and is now what could be described as an activist. Not only does he send his 3 younger girls to school, his eldest daughter has just started as a teacher and he is an active member on the parent teacher committee. One of his duties on this committee is to visit families that don’t send their children to school to find out why and to help encourage them keep up a regular attendance.
Good quality education is considered to be one of the fundamental building blocks of a peaceful nation and is key to a countries development, so it’s people like Jan Muhammad on the Shura Council, the teachers and members of the Parent Teachers Committees who strive to create change that is critical to the grassroots building of the nation.
Asking one girl called Layla, an 18 year old student from Nangahar Province what she would like to see happen she said, “Education is very important in bringing peace. In remote provinces where there are not many schools and children have guns instead of pens in their hands, there is war and instability. I request the international community and other organisations to continue their support. I believe there will be no peace in Afghanistan until we improve the situation of education in Afghanistan.“
Afghanistan is once again at a cross roads as coalition forces prepare to leave in 2014. What will happen to Afghanistan after this no one really knows but one can only hope that reconciliation can be found and that the new generation of Afghans get the peace that this amazing country has long deserved.