Schools improve the lives of women in Afghanistan | Mission East

Schools improve the lives of women in Afghanistan

Afghan girl holding schoolbook

Less than half of all girls attend school in a country where conditions for women have been slow to change since the fall of the Taliban. Mission East has built six schools in Afghanistan. For thousands of girls this is the first time they can attend school. 

Seven year old Mariam reveals a shy smile as she hides behind her little green study book, which she is using to learn how to read Dari, the language spoken in this north-eastern corner of Afghanistan. 

Mariam is not yet wearing a burqa, like the ones covering both face and body of the slightly older girls in the village. She is only wearing a scarf covering her dark hair. She has been attending school for 54 days and has already learned to read a bit, she says, while she carefully places the study book in her bag, which she has made out of folded juice cartons. Mariam is on her way to becoming one of the only 15 percent of Afghan women who can read.

Mariam sits in a bare class room in a brand new school in the village of Khanaqa, facing a vast, barren, mountain landscape. For the first time ever the isolated village now has a proper school, built by Mission East. Previously, the boys attended a tent school, but Mariam is now one of 40 percent of Afghan girls who can now go to school too. Only a few years ago, during the fundamentalist Taliban rule no girls were allowed in school.

Education can break the cycle
Just how important it is for Afghan girls to get an education is illustrated by the health statistics of Afghan women. The average age for a woman in Afghanistan is 44 years. Maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world. Giving girls an education is key to solving the problem, a view shared by everyone from the local midwife to the experts.

"There is a direct correlation between women’s health and their level of education. Girls without education get married at an early age. They get pregnant at an age where their body is not yet ready for it. And they know nothing about hygiene or about how to care for their children. Practically all women have experienced the loss of a child because of diseases, which could have been avoided if they had had the necessary knowledge. This knowledge they are now getting in school," explains UNICEF spokesman Edward Carwardine.

Attacks against schools 
Education for girls is on the agenda of the Afghan government and international donors. In 2006 alone 2000 new schools will be built and, according to the constitution, education is a universal right. But particularly in southern Afghanistan, there are communities where no girls get to go to school.

In the wake of the recent escalation of violence and attacks from the Taliban and other forces opposing the government, schools for girls have also been targeted. Since the beginning of this year 50 schools have been attacked with bombs or rockets or burned down. In 200 villages, city walls have been defaced with strong warnings against girl schools.

"Girls’ schools are a very visible proof of the progress Afghanistan is experiencing and they are an easy target for those opposing the government. Many schools are closing because of the security situation. Luckily many parents are eager to get the kids back in school again, but perhaps in schools which are less visible and more low-profile," says Edward Carwardine.

Mariam is working
In Khanaqa the local mullah is a lot more positive: "The girls must also go to school. Islam says everyone must be educated. And this is the only way we can get engineers and doctors - and achieve development", says the local mullah. The village has seen progress within the last year. Now there is clean water so the children avoid becoming sick from drinking contaminated water. The children received education about hygiene in school and the mothers are given hygiene training at home. For Mariam, school is also a break from her everyday chores and work.

"I love going to school," she says, before she has to go home and take care of her younger siblings, clean the house and tend to the animals. But she is lucky. A third of the girls in Afghanistan spend all day at home.

Mission East has just completed the construction of 6 schools in northern Afghanistan and is educating women about hygiene and the importance of clean drinking water. Furthermore, Mission East is helping numerous villages by providing access to clean water, latrines and access roads, linking them to surrounding towns.

Look at pictures from Mission East's work in schools in other countries...