Women and girls take the lead in Afghanistan

On October 11, we celebrate the International Day of the Girl. The day aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. This year’s theme is “With Her: A Skilled GirlForce.”
On October 11, we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child. The day aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. This year’s theme is “With Her: A Skilled GirlForce.”

Education Cannot Wait provides a new path for women teachers and community leaders, opening up re-envisioned learning opportunities for girls living on the edge of crisis

Education is enlightenment. It’s what will take girls out of the darkness to empower a future generation of dynamic women leaders, and to build the skills girls need to control their destinies.

For this year’s International Day of the Girl, the world will turn its eyes to building a “Skilled GirlForce.” In places like Afghanistan, where classes are largely divided by gender and women still have limited access to education – no matter where they live, be it a refugee camp in Rodat or the better-off suburbs of the capital – empowering women teachers is a key step to delivering equitable, gender-balanced education for girls living in crisis and ensuring no girl is left behind in our global efforts to provide inclusive and equitable access to quality education for everyone.

Without female teachers, Afghani girls could easily fall through the cracks. Education Cannot Wait, along with a powerful coalition of international actors, the Government of Afghanistan, and local leaders and teachers, are making positive first steps in rebuilding a pathway to education and skills training for the girls left behind by a protracted crisis that cost millions of lives and pushed women and girls to the margins.

Afghanistan’s education system has been devastated by more than three decades of sustained conflict, according to UNICEF. For many of the country’s children, completing primary school remains a distant dream – especially in rural areas and for girls – despite recent progress in raising enrolment.

In all, UNICEF estimates that 3.7 million children are out of school in Afghanistan – 60% of them are girls. That’s 2.2 million girls left behind because of war and lack of adequate teaching facilities and women teachers.

On a positive note, education enrolment as a whole in Afghanistan is rising. In 1999, not a single girl was enrolled at the secondary level, and only 9,000 girls were enrolled in primary school. By 2003, 2.4 million girls were enrolled in school, and by 2013, gross enrolment for girls rose to approximately 35 percent.

In Afghanistan, education is largely delivered along gender lines, with very few mixed-gender schools. And a lack of girls-only schools and female teachers, provides a significant barrier to education for the 2.2 million girls that are still left behind.

As of right now, only 16 percent of Afghanistan’s schools are girls-only, and many of them lack proper sanitation facilities, which further hinders attendance, according to UNICEF. Deeply rooted cultural norms, socio-cultural factors, traditional beliefs and poverty all contribute to undermine education for girls. Significantly, girls continue to get married at an early age (17 percent are married before the age of 15 and approximately 46 percent of girls are married before the age of 18).

To address this issue, and increase access to education for girls in Afghanistan, Education Cannot Wait is supporting initiatives to empower women as community leaders and bring female teachers to remote areas.

By providing education to girls, these brave teachers are key to making a difference in the development trajectory of their country. This will prepare girls to enter the workforce, take part in civic life and regain control of their futures.


Only a third of Afghanistan’s teachers are women, providing a significant hurdle for education and undermining efforts to build lasting skills that will empower this future generation – this GirlForce as it is aptly named in this year’s International Day of the Girl Child – to enter the workforce and chart new pathways for women and girls everywhere.

At the Hisar Shahi displacement center in Rodat, for example, there was a significant lack of female teachers, particularly for biology.

“In conservative Afghan culture it is considered inappropriate for a male teacher to teach girls subjects such as biology that involve images of body parts and terminology that only a woman should speak about to girls,” explained a Malik (community leader) in a meeting with the Welfare Association For the Development of Afghanistan (WADAN), an implementing partner delivering education for children living in crisis in Afghanistan with the support of ECW. Along with WADAN, Education Cannot Wait has also partnered with the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children to mobilize education for children living in crisis in Afghanistan.

To solve this problem, community stakeholders went to Maliks, community elders and religious leaders to come up with an answer. They agreed that the lack of qualified teachers, especially for biology, was creating a significant bottleneck and keeping girls out of school.

The community set about looking for a new female biology teacher, a hard-enough task in a country where just four out of ten children attend secondary school and less than half the population between 15 and 24 is literate.

Then came Ms. Paria, who had studied sciences, chemistry and biology at Nangarhar University. Ms. Paria set about teaching biology for the girls living in the Hisar Shahi displacement center, and has become a ray of hope for girls living there.

Ms. Paria teaching biology in her classroom.
Ms. Paria teaching biology in her classroom.

“Teaching these girls is a wonderful opportunity for me. I am also glad to see that many girls are encouraged to resume their classes when female teachers are available,” said Ms. Paria.

In all, some 40 girls have returned to class with their new biology teacher.

It’s a small success, but an essential starting point to ensure access to education for girls across the country. To scale-up and replicate these successful pilot initiatives, ECW recently announced a new three-year programme in Afghanistan that will reach over 500,000 children. The US$150 million programme, starting with the US$12 million allocation from ECW, will create an inclusive teaching and learning environment, improve continuity of education, and create safer and more protective learning environments, with a target of 50 per cent of programme support going towards girls’ access to quality education.


Women are also stepping in as community leaders and organizers, through ECW investment, leading the delivery of equitable and quality education.

Saima is a resident of Merano Tapo village in the Behsood District of Nangarhar Province and a teacher by profession. Saima is a devoted advocate for Afghan women’s rights and has a history of speaking out for women.

During a workshop with religious scholars, community elders, civil society activists and other teachers, Saima spoke out to mobilize more education opportunities for girls living in Merano Tapo.

Saima facilitates a community meeting.

“I work for girls to motivate their parents to send their girls to schools,” Saima said.

Following the workshop, Saima organized a number of women into small groups assigned to various sections of the village, and asked them to start a campaign to connect with families and promote education for girls living in the village. In the most remote corners of Afghanistan, 87 percent of girls are excluded from education.

With Saima in the lead, and substantial political and social backing behind her from the community she had organized, more than 50 families agreed to send their girls to class.

Thanks to Saima’s community activism, 10-year-old Asma is now attending a school supported through Education Cannot Wait.

“Suddenly and unexpectedly seven women arrived at my house. I was surprised and to be honest I was a bit scared; I did not know why they came. I knew only one of them, but they introduced themselves and asked my wife and me to relax and listen to their team leader,” said Asma’s father, Abdul Wali. “She talked about the importance of education for women. By the end of her presentation both of us decided to allow our daughter to go to school. We are happy and believe we have made a good decision.”

Education heroes like Saima and Ms. Paria – bold women who are breaking boundaries to bring education to Afghanistan’s girls – are a great force and example in mobilizing women teachers across the globe. Along with support from governments, donors, civil society and international funds such as Education Cannot Wait, these education heroes will be the driving force in building a “Skilled GirlForce” and empowering women and girls everywhere.



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