With the Girls of Afghanistan: “The Pen is the Sword”
They want to be teachers, doctors and scientists, a dream that would not have been possible just ten years ago.
On 18 March, throngs of girls lined up singing and clapping to welcome UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, and Afghanistan’s Education Minister Farooq Wardak to the Ayesha-e-Durrani school in Kabul.
The school, named after the first woman who opened a girls’ school in Afghanistan, was severely damaged during the war. Reconstruction started in 2002 and lasted two years. Today, the school welcomes 1600 girls from Grade 1 through the high school years.
It was a moment to praise the achievements of this country that has made strides since 2001 when not a single girl was in school.
“We started from below the ground. We have lost two to three generations through war and conflict," said Minister Wardaq. “Today 10.5 million Afghan children are going to school, 40 percent of them are girls. Our strategy has been built around community empowerment, ownership and multiple learning pathways.”
Together, the Director-General and the Minister toured classes of biology, chemistry and physics, where students demonstrated experiments with microscopes, test tubes and energy generation devices. They stopped in geography, computer science and handicrafts classes to watch girls at work on sewing machines.
The girls know that they belong to a new generation. One young student shared her feelings on the pre- and post-Taliban era by reciting a poem, recalling that under the Taliban, “we the girls did not have the freedom to walk in the street and in the open air, to look at the sky.”
“Here in this school I see the results of our work. You have one of the youngest populations in the world. You are the ones who will take the future of your country into your own hands, girls and boys together,” said Ms Bokova. “I have come here with a strong message of support. You are a country of ancient traditions and of young talent. You have the right to make choices and to `take your life into your own hands.”
The journey is still a long one. Three million children remain out of school, 70 percent of them are girls. One of the head teachers at the school explained that the staff meets twice a month to discuss problems that girls face. “We work with the parents to convince them to send their girls to school. We have recently organized short term courses for teacher volunteers and have opened literacy classes.”
The case of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was the victim of an assassination attempt by the Taliban last year, was cited on several occasions. “We face daily Malala cases in our country. There is a disturbing trend of girls being poisoned, with some 4,000 cases reported. In Kandahar, there are cases of acid being thrown into the face of girls,” said the Minister. He explained that education is interrupted by early marriage or because schools are considered unsafe. “They don’t have a boundary wall, drinking water, electricity and separate latrines. They lack qualified teachers and books. We need your support. We ask you to take our message to the world.”
“I know there are many courageous girls in Afghanistan who have to overcome obstacles to go to school. We have to support and respect them. This is their right. I want to pay respect to all these girls,” said Ms Bokova. “I saw a slogan on the wall of your school that read ‘our pen is our sword’. This should be the future. Instead of guns, the pen. Girls can be in the front run of this fight. Continue to study and to learn. This is not against any religious belief. This is the best thing you can do for your family, your community and your country.”