Vanessa Thevathasan, attended the ‘What Tomorrow Brings’ premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on behalf of Development in Action, spotlighting the growing concerns facing teachers and girls in Afghanistan in their drive for equal access to education in a traditionally conservative society
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, education in Afghanistan has made significant headway, with the number of children in school rising from just one million to ten million in a decade. The number of girls attending school has increased by over 30 percent. Despite the progress, the incidence of attacks on schools is one of the highest in the world, leaving more than three million children out of education; an estimated 1.5 million school-age girls are still not enrolled in classes. Centering on the work of Razia Jan, founder of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation, a Kabul-based non-governmental organisation that provides education to 400 girls, ‘What Tomorrow Brings’ highlights the challenges and progress made by one woman to make a better, safer place for girls in Afghanistan.
Afghan native Razia Jan single-handedly raised $150,000 from donations and fundraisers to open the first girls’ school in the district of Deh’Sabz, a small, conservative region with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. The Zabuli Education Center teaches kindergarten to eighth grade. Filmmaker Beth Murphy has documented the school’s challenges and progress in ‘What Tomorrow Brings.’
Amongst the core problems facing girls education in Afghanistan is the proliferation of attacks and threats on schools. Fears for the future do not come from violence alone but also the imposition of cultural tradition on young girls. More than 50 percent of Afghan girls are married or engaged by age 12 and almost 60 percent of girls are married by age 16. In the poor rural areas, 80 percent of marriages are either forced or arranged. Some girls are bartered into marriage to replay debt or resolve a dispute. This is the struggle facing many of Razia’s students, who drop out of school as a result and remain illiterate all their lives. The persistence of child marriage practice reinforces the culture of patriarchy that has relegated Afghan women to a lifetime of subordination and limited opportunities.
Razia is fighting to keep girls from marrying before they graduate. She convenes a meeting of fathers and community elders to persuade them of the importance of girls’ education. They all listen and nod intently; as they leave one father asks Razia if his daughter can join the school while another asks her to add more computer and science classes so his daughter can attend. This is a long way from when the school first opened when Razia was threatened to close the school or build one only for boys. Through the power of the pen, Razia has transformed suspicion and threats into support for the girls:
One of the first things we do is to teach the girls how to write their father’s name. Then they take it home to show their parents. The fathers have come up to me, crying: “My daughter can write my name, and I can’t.” That is a big moment. I have proved to the men of these seven villages that this is the best thing that’s happened for their daughters – to become educated. The girls are more independent. They can talk to their father or talk to their mother and share their opinions.
Working with fathers, community elders and religious leaders is therefore vital. Educated men are more likely to support equal choices for women and ensure that they have the same opportunities for social inclusion through education, jobs and livelihood. If Afghans on a local level accept the benefits and importance of girls’ education, then the threat faced by girls will gradually dissipate. However, the gains made here are in danger of being rolled back, as Murphy explains:
I think there’s this idea that, as the Western forces leave, there’s less protection for things like girls education…That’s why the film’s called ‘What Tomorrow Brings’, because of the precariousness of the security situation in the country. People worry about what’s going to happen.
Despite the dangers, Raz remains defiant. She understands the stake girls have in the future of Afghanistan. In a classroom, huddled around Razia, are a group of girls, aged 5-8, who eagerly listen to her as she tells the story known world over of Malala Yousafzai and her fight for girls’ education against the Taliban in Pakistan. “Why did they shoot her?” one girl asks. “Because she spoke out and said, ‘I have the right to study,'” Razia explains. “‘I have the right to laugh, I have the right to play…’ Nobody has the right to prevent a girl from attending school or getting educated. Studying is not a sin.” Through these stories, Razia hopes to inspire the next generation of girls to pave the way for gender equality that will truly free them, allow them to thrive, and contribute to the future of their country.
Without the Razia’s school, many of the students never would have had the chance to receive an education. While the struggle continues, and the challenges described are enormous, they are not insurmountable. Razia’s school, which started at less than 50 and now educates more than 400 girls, is a testament to that fact. Education plays a pivotal role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Razia is nuturing a generation that will help shape their country’s future. This will ensure that change comes from within society and empowers young girls today to choose their own future. As Murphy tries stress through her film.”[p]eople like Razia, who really are the peacekeepers in the country, can’t be abandoned. We have to stay and support people like her to secure the future of the country.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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