KABUL, Afghanistan, 29 October 2013 – Before the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Shaima Alkozai feared only one thing more than the regime’s harsh punishment: the fate of the millions of girls around her growing up without an education.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visited Afghanistan to see first-hand the progress made in girls education. While noting the remarkable gains, he said much more still needed to be done.
For five years before the 2001 military invasion that overthrew the Taliban government, women were not allowed outside their homes without a male relative to escort them. They were prevented from working, and girls’ schools were shuttered.
Amidst this environment of fear and repression Ms. Alkozai, a veteran educator, started teaching young girls secretly in her home.
“They had to wear burkas and pretend they were going to a friend’s house,” she says. “They would hide their books in flour containers.”
In 2001, there were fewer than a million students in school, and almost none of them were girls. Thirteen years later, things could hardly be more different. Drive along the dusty streets of Kabul on any weekday and you will see girls in black uniforms and white headscarves on their way to and from school.
There are now more than 8.3 million students in school across Afghanistan, nearly 40 per cent of them girls. There are more than 14,000 educational institutions, and a national curriculum has been established after 30 years of conflict.
Ms. Alkozai is one of around 170,000 working teachers in the country. As the deputy principal at Zarghona Girls School in Kabul, she is responsible for more than 8,000 female students from grade 1 to grade 12, and her faith in girls’ education is stronger than ever.
The life of the nation
“An uneducated person is blind. They don’t know how to live their life,” she says during a school recess. “It’s especially important for women, because they are responsible for their life and the lives of their children and family. The life of the nation is in the woman’s hands.”
It is a message echoed by Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF, who visited Ms. Alkozai’s school earlier this month. After talking with primary and secondary school girls, Mr. Lake said he was impressed by the drive and commitment demonstrated by the students. Many of them are hoping to attend university and have ambitions of becoming doctors and engineers to help their country and to support their families.
“This is an extraordinary school, and unfortunately it is extraordinary in Afghanistan, because there are many millions of girls who are not in school across the country,” Mr. Lake said. “Many millions who are not able to say – as the girls I just met with can say – ‘I want to be a doctor.’”
Alongside those in remote parts of the country, children who are living with disabilities, in poverty or homeless are more likely to miss out on education.
More to be done
“I keep thinking that while UNICEF has played a wonderful role here at this school in helping out, there’s so much more to be done,” Mr. Lake said. “These girls who are in school today are the future of Afghanistan.”
The country is at a critical juncture, with the election of a new president and provincial councils scheduled for April 2014, as well as the withdrawal next year of tens of thousands of international military forces.
Despite the changes ahead, Mr. Lake said, UNICEF will continue to work towards improving the lives of Afghan women and children, as it has done for more than 60 years. Education, health, nutrition, protection, and water and sanitation continue to be focal points for the organization. UNICEF believes it is critical that international funding for these areas is not only maintained, but increased significantly if Afghanistan is to sustain the progress made over the last decade.
“What will be the future for women?” asks schoolteacher Ms. Alkozai. “Will their situation improve or become worse? It doesn’t matter to us if we have to wear a burka or not. But we want to continue with education.”
Story by Karishma Vyas