By Janat Totakhail, ChildFund Afghanistan
Janana is 15 and the oldest of four sisters. They live in a village in northern Afghanistan near the border of Tajikistan, where few children — especially girls — have the opportunity to get an education. Janana, too, had never been allowed by her mother and father to attend school.
Her father works as a shopkeeper and sometimes as a hired farmer, while her mother takes care of the household. As the oldest sister, Janana also has many responsibilities at home. But she always hoped to go to school. Today, that goal has become a strong possibility.
In Afghanistan, ChildFund supports Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) where children and teens can study and play. In Janana’s village and four more, we started 10 CFSs in 2013: one for boys and one for girls in each community, and 1,001 children have taken part in the program. Many have experienced war-related trauma and are still at risk of violence, abuse and neglect, so the spaces don’t just serve educational needs. They help keep children safe and also let community members plan for emergencies, particularly how to protect their children. Once ChildFund’s direct supervision ended in January, community members have stepped in to run the programs.
The CFSs for girls have eased some of the stigma attached to education for young women. Janana persuaded her parents to let her attend.
Now, it is her second home, giving her a place to learn and spend time with girls from her neighborhood. Janana is able to read and write names and short sentences, and she’s about a year away from mastering primary school-level literacy and numeracy. One of her sisters has joined her at the CFS.
“I like learning the Pashto language,” Janana says, “and I feel proud and empowered while reading a letter for my parents and helping my little sister to read and write.”
If she had not attended the CFS, she adds, “my life would be different. I would be busy all day with housework, with no opportunity to interact with peers, make friends, play, and learn to read and write.”
Janana’s parents also are happy to see their daughter progressing in her studies.
“An illiterate person is like a blind person,” her father says. “My daughter helps me to learn Islamic principles; she reads for me the letters, invitations and wedding cards; takes note of money that I lend to people, and she helps me understand the details of the electricity bill. She helps her mother and sisters in understanding personal hygiene and health issues. I am proud having Janana as a helping hand.”
Kochai, who facilitates the CFS, also has noticed her progress: “Janana has been very active participating in learning activities. She learned to respect parents and elders, gained awareness in health and hygiene, and, more importantly, is progressing well in literacy and numeracy. I am hopeful that one day she will join school with children of her age.”
Her family, too, is encouraging Janana to continue her education at a school close to her village. She has a big dream for the future: “I want to be a teacher, to help all school-age girls in my village to go to school and learn to make their future and help others.”
Saturday, March 8 is International Women’s Day, which has been observed for more than 100 years. Equal rights, education, empowerment and independence for women and girls — all over the world — are the cornerstone of the day, tenets that ChildFund supports. Mahdia, the Afghani woman interviewed here, declined to have her photo published because she was worried about her husband and male relatives’ reaction to her likeness being seen by people outside the ChildFund Afghanistan office, particularly men.
A huge smile lights up Mahdia’s face as she reads a sentence from her Dari book, which teaches phrases in the language used in Mahdia’s community.
Mahdia is one of ChildFund Afghanistan’s cleaners and, like the majority of Afghani women, she is illiterate. Two times a week, she and I sit together, as we are taken through the intricacies of the Dari language in our quest to read and write it. She has an advantage over me in that she can speak the language, but as for the rest of the tasks, we both struggle.
For the rest of the day and ensuing days, the ever-present smile gets bigger and bigger, and there is a sense of something different about her — a confidence that is slowly uncoiling and emerging like the blooming of a flower.
Like Mahdia, I come from a poor background, but the difference between our somewhat parallel lives is that I was able to receive an education. Also, I was born in the country that, in 1893, became the first in the world to give women the right to vote. Today’s New Zealand women benefit from the struggle in which our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers succeeded in ensuring equal opportunities for women. In fact, if you were to ask New Zealand men how they perceive the rights and opportunities for New Zealand females, they would more than likely tell you it is 60 percent/40 percent in favor of women.
Afghanistan’s women were awarded the right to vote in 1964. The new constitution established in 2004 states, “Any kind of discrimination and privilege between the citizens of Afghanistan is prohibited. The citizens of Afghanistan — whether man or woman — have equal rights and duties before the law.” But despite having the ability to vote and having a constitution that notes gender equality, the majority of Afghani women have not seen many significant improvements in their lives. Indeed, Afghanistan is recognized as being one of the most dangerous countries to be a female.
It is estimated that 75 percent of Afghani women have no education. The average lifespan of women is 49 years; 85 percent of women face, or have faced, abuse or physical violence. And Afghanistan still has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Early marriage is extremely common as well.
Most women and girls face precarious prospects in a highly fragile environment buffeted by low economic performance and high poverty, food insecurity, as well as high levels of insecurity and exclusion on account of gender.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and reflect on the progress made so far in the quest to achieve equality for women and girls worldwide, we also recognize what still needs to happen.
A month after International Women’s Day, with its theme of Inspiring Change, the people of Afghanistan will head to the polls to elect a new president. As many of the presidential candidates campaign on the need to recognize the rights of women and make promises of bringing improvement to women’s lives, many Afghani women are hopeful that 2014 will be a year of positive change for both them and their country. They are calling for changes in attitudes and positive action for women’s equality; if Afghanistan is to make progress, the status quo cannot continue.
Mahdia tells me that she is doing all she can to encourage her daughters to get good educations so they can have opportunities that she has been denied. She also tells me — with that big smile lighting up her face — that they are so proud of her learning to read and write.
As I sit here in Afghanistan, I can’t help but wonder how my life may have turned out had it not been for the opportunities I have had, because I was born a female in New Zealand.
ChildFund and Nokero International, Ltd. have partnered to expand educational opportunity to 1,200 girls and 800 boys from a nomadic tribe in northern Afghanistan.
Our first effort with Nokero, in 2012, was to provide safe, inexpensive solar-powered lights to schoolchildren in Liberia. This time, we’re taking advantage of another quality of Nokero’s lights: their portability.
In northern Afghanistan, the nomadic Kuchi people move with the seasons, herding animals and bartering along the way. As one of Afghanistan’s most marginalized ethnic groups, they face extreme poverty and instability.
Since they settle only temporarily in rural, isolated regions, the Kuchis go months at a time without basic services like electricity and education. The literacy rate among the Kuchi men is less than 7 percent, and among women, it’s less than 2. Less than 2 percent of Kuchi girls are able to enroll in school.
This project supports a larger grant initiative to expand educational opportunities for 2,000 Kuchi children. It has two components:
625 Nokero solar-powered lamps and chargers that students can use to study, even when they’re in remote locations without electricity
peer-led study clubs that will be monitored by trained mentors and teachers so that students can continue their studies while on the move
Lights and study groups will empower children — especially girls — to sustain their learning without abandoning their nomadic way of life.
But to make this happen, we need your help to raise $8,864 by March 1 for our Fund a Project, Solar Lights and Study Clubs for Kuchi Children.
Join hands with other like-minded people and bring this project to life. And don’t forget to share the link with your family and friends.
By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist
When you were young, did your parents read you bedtime stories?
One summer my youngest sister lived with me. She was 18, between high school and college. My daughter was 6. Every night, I read the two of them bedtime stories. Together, we finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit and the entire Chronicles of Narnia.
Sept. 8 is International Literacy Day, a time to recognize how crucial literacy is to social development, along with the intrinsic benefits of reading and writing.
Children in developing countries often don’t share the experience of bedtime reading. At night, when families sit together in the darkness, parents sometimes tell stories — folk tales or oral history about ancient gods and kings, proud empires and illustrious ancestors. But many of these adults are illiterate, and books are scarce in their countries. Electricity, if it exists at all, is unreliable. On the equator, days are short. The sun rises at 6 a.m. and sets at 6 p.m. every day, regardless of the season.
In some countries where ChildFund works, there are no bookstores or public libraries; lack of demand results in no supply. Whatever reading material is available is far too expensive for all except the very wealthy. In the end, there is no culture of reading.
Even school classrooms often lack textbooks. Teachers lecture from hand-written notebooks — signed and stamped by the government ministry. They write on the chalkboard, and children copy into their own notebooks. Transcription errors handed down over the years create some misconceptions.
Research shows that, during story time, children bond with their parents, learning to read by matching the colorful pictures in their books to the storyline. Children also learn to think critically by observing the characters’ behavior. Bedtime stories begin a lifetime of reading.
Literacy is a fundamental human right. According to UNESCO, it’s the foundation for lifelong learning. It transforms lives, empowering people to improve their health, education and income. Without literacy, social and human development stalls.
UNESCO’s theme for International Literacy Day 2013 is Literacies for the 21st Century. In the United States, elementary school children learn computer-literacy skills, which are considered critical to success in modern society. Yet most of my 19-year-old information technology students in Guinea had never seen a computer.
Our measures for literacy in developing countries are limited to basic book-literacy. In Afghanistan, only 12 percent of youth attend secondary school. Of all of the countries we serve, Ethiopia has the lowest youth literacy rate — 63 percent for males and 47 percent for females. Only 16 percent of Ethiopian youths attend secondary school.
In many African countries, achieving literacy in their country’s official language (English, French, Spanish, Arabic or Portuguese) doesn’t occur until secondary school. Elementary school children are mostly taught in their local languages. They may not be able to write letters to their sponsors without assistance.