Sunday 11 October was International Day of the Girl. This year’s focus is on Adolescent girls. Despite the MDG targets to achieve universal primary education and eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2015, according to Afghanistan’s most recent census only 23% of Afghan adolescent girls spend their teenage years in school, as compared to 42% of their male counterparts. Most rural families in particular still do not believe it is necessary for girls to get an education; these girls are to marry young. Thus, change must start from within.
This situation speaks to me very personally; as an Afghan woman I have grown up with experience of war and migration, and have faced many barriers to education. My father was a wise man who believed all his children, boys and girls, should become educated. However, the civil war brought a break in my schooling as most facilities were closed or destroyed during the fighting. In the late 1990s my family migrated to Pakistan and it was a golden chance for a refugee girl to continue her education. Sadly, my father was forced to leave us and go to Iran to find work. After this, it was not easy for me to continue my education. Without the support of my father, another family member tried to stop me going to school: my books were torn, and I was refused money to buy a uniform and other supplies. Words from my community and relatives about how stubborn I was still ring in my ears today. All of this made me feel like I was swimming upstream against a mighty river. Now, I am grateful to have overcome these barriers, as my work as a researcher has given me the opportunity to travel around my country, and as I do so, I try to teach women about the importance of girls’ education.
This summer I visited one family in which all the boys had primary and higher education, but, despite the MDG goal of universal primary education by 2015, the girls of the family were still not permitted to attend school even at primary level, as the male household head believed that education is not necessary for women. In response to a survey question asking if the girl children in the house attended school, our 25-year-old respondent Haleema , the daughter-in-law of the household, said that her father-in-law did not believe it was necessary for girls to get an education. He confirmed, saying, “What will be the benefit of education for girls?” She then looked at us and softly spoke, “You have admirable traits as you can read and write. You know everything because you are literate and educated.” She said she wished she were literate, so she could teach her seven-year-old daughter. But it was the rule in the family that her daughter was not to go to school. Haleema also had a 12-year-old sister-in-law who was not permitted to go to school. She asked us to talk with the men of her family on her behalf. Observance of our research ethics means we can’t interfere in our respondents’ family issues. So I told her, “There is no need for me to talk to them. You are the best one to talk with your husband, who is a teacher, and your father-in-law.” I went on: “Talk calmly and patiently. Try to avoid arguing and concentrate on explaining the value of your daughter and sister-in-law becoming educated. Talk about the benefits that education will bring to their lives as well as the lives of other family members.” She said she would try her best.
When we went the second time to the village three weeks later, she came to us and said, “Thank you very much. As you advised, I talked with my husband and he then talked with his father about the girls getting an education. Now, my daughter and sister-in-law are both in school; they are the first girls in the family to be allowed to go to school!”
What did this situation teach me? Two things. First, in Afghanistan, every woman must understand that it requires courage to take part in decision-making in their families and to express one’s feelings and desires. And second, it also requires patience: nothing can happen immediately; everything, whether it is a belief or a custom and culture, needs to be worked through consistently and handled patiently.
As we inspired Haleema with our words and actions, so can she inspire other women, through her courage and patience, to be change-makers in their families and communities.
Reference 2012 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment, Central Statistics Organization, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan