The issue of access to education for Afghan girls is both a sensitive subject and a major challenge for the country. When the Taliban were in power, until 2001, most of the schools accessible to girls were closed, leading to a drop in the rate of Afghan girls attending school. Nearly twenty years later, almost 40% of them have access to education, a great progress for a country that does not seem to have any respite, torn between war, poverty, religious and political conflicts.
This great progress does not however diminish the struggle linked to access to education for girls and young women. Although, after the fall of the Taliban regime, the Afghan government launched a major plan to boost girls’ schooling – called “Back to school”, non-profit organisations now note a certain lack of interest on the part of the authorities for this cause, and the conditions of access to education are still fragile.
Schools and institutions that welcome young Afghan girls are very often the target of reprisals (burnt schools, vandalised equipment, etc.): in 2018, 200 schools were attacked across the country. The frequent deterioration of schools is not the only obstacle standing between Afghan women and education. Indeed, as highlighted in a study by the NGO HumanRightsWatch, girls’ education is threatened by many factors: forced marriages from a very young age, which put an end to schooling, street harassment on the way to school, or child work to the detriment of school in the poorest families.
Although it is difficult to agree on the figures, international observers all agree that several million girls and young women are still deprived of education
Not to mention the immense poverty in which many rural areas of the country find themselves, resulting in a lack of educational infrastructure. Kidnappings, sexual harassment and general hostility towards girls being able to receive an education are also quite common.
Although it is difficult to agree on the figures, international observers all agree that several million girls and young women are still deprived of education, and many non-profits and NGOs work reduce these inequalities and give Afghan women an ever greater chance of being able to attend school.
This is the case of Ofarin , a non profit organisation created by a German couple – Peter and Annemarie Schwittek – in 1996, thanks to which more than 9,000 pupils (2017 figures), the majority of whom being girls, manage to attend school.
Ofarin has adapted to the country’s codes while involving the local population
If Ofarin has been succeeding in educating Afghan women for more than twenty years, it is notably because its founders have been able to take into account the traditional and societal constraints of the country, by inviting the local religious authorities to participate fully in the project, thus avoiding too much hostility from the population. In this way, the mullahs – religious leaders – from each town or village in which Ofarin is active, are also stakeholders in the project and facilitate the work of the association. And as early as 1998, in the midst of the Taliban regime, the founders were able to organise their first classes in mosques in Kabul and the provinces of Logar and Wardak, thus providing schooling for more than 10,000 children, of whom half were girls.
After the fall of the Taliban, Ofarin maintained its action by keeping the school within the mosques, but also by extending the concept to private residences, on the basis of voluntary work by the population. The organisation has also signed a partnership with the Afghan Ministry of Religious Affairs, again with the aim of fully involving the local authorities and giving itself every chance of being accepted by public opinion. As pointed out by Ofarin: “If you want to bring about change in Afghanistan, you must work hand in hand with the mullahs”. Ofarin is said to be the only association to date to have established such strong links with the religious authorities.
Innovative school programmes
The school programmes devised by Ofarin claim to be innovative and highly appreciated by the population. According to the organisation, the programmes are created with the aim of providing girls and young women with a dimension of personal development, beyond the pursuit of a curriculum in the strict sense of the word. Ofarin has built its school programmes to encourage children to surpass themselves and to learn on a continuous basis, “if students are able to add two numbers together, they will be able to add three, then four (…), it is in this philosophy that the programmes are run”, the organisation explains.
The courses provided by Ofarin do not follow the curricula established by the Afghan school system (primary, secondary, etc.), as the founders believe that the country’s school system has many shortcomings, and that going to school does not guarantee sufficient and satisfactory learning. For example, according to Ofarin, it is not uncommon for students who move on to secondary school to have difficulty with reading texts or performing simple subtraction or multiplication. For all these reasons, Ofarin builds its own education programmes, including the « pre-school program » which provides literacy, writing and grammar courses, enabling young girls to improve the mastery of their mother tongue and to practise it correctly. The basics of mathematics are also taught, as well as religious education, provided by the mullahs who host classes in their mosques.
After the fall of the Taliban, Ofarin maintained its action by keeping the school within the mosques, but also by extending the concept to private residences, on the basis of voluntary work by the population
Ofarin has, for many years, been capitalizing on the programmes it designs and the teaching material it produces, and has been working to extend its teaching towards a primary school curriculum, to enable pupils to acquire a “solid foundation for independence in everyday life”.
Ofarin’s pedagogical approach is therefore not modelled on what is provided for by the country’s school system, and adapts to the real constraints of the populations and the most urgent needs of young Afghan girls, namely: mastering the basics of their language and the basics of algebra to ensure their day-to-day autonomy.
Their programmes can also be a stepping stone for some young girls who have the opportunity to continue their schooling on a long-term and regular basis. A German documentary dedicated to the organisation and filmed in 2017 – broadcasted on the Franco-German TV channel Arte and also available in English on Youtube – highlights the fact that some of the teachers who work for Ofarin are former students of their programmes. And that is also what makes Ofarin’s strength: having a solid community, convinced of the usefulness of the project and happy to help keep it going. For example, it is not uncommon to see young female teachers giving classes for Ofarin’s pupils, even when the organisation’s funds run out and it is not always possible to pay their salaries.
Although many international donors have withdrawn from Afghanistan due to an increasingly unstable economic and political situation, non-profit organisations like Ofarin are fighting to continue their work at all costs, and can count on the involvement and commitment of local partners and Afghan volunteers (teachers, coordinators, etc.) who work daily to maintain and encourage girls’ education.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
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