This time of year brings the end of summer vacations and a return to the routines of school. The rituals associated with Back to School season are familiar and reassuring: new clothes, school supplies, book bags and lunch boxes to go along with our new teachers and classrooms.
But what is routine to us is a rarity in other parts of the world—especially if you happen to be a girl. That is certainly the case in Afghanistan, where I recently visited and met some extraordinary young women who are overcoming great odds by simply going to school.
In many remote Afghan villages, schools are few and far between and the lucky few who attend them often must walk a great distance. During Taliban rule, it was forbidden to educate women, and more recently, many factors work against girls receiving an education: There are cultural factors, some families won’t permit their daughters to walk long distances, and many are too poor to afford school expenses.
The focus of Catholic Relief Services’ education program in Afghanistan is to provide quality education in these remote areas. Parents are much more willing to send their children to small classes held in safe neighborhoods than to distant schools where children are taught by strangers. Students benefit from small class sizes, close relationships with their teachers and a more personalized learning experience. For girls in particular, school that is close to home is usually the only option because of cultural constraints, distance or security.
In the Herat region of Afghanistan, CRS created community-based schools where classes are held in village buildings or homes. We train local people to be teachers. And we provide books, blackboards and other supplies essential to teaching. Working with village elders, CRS made sure to get community buy-in and to respect local traditions when founding these schools.
I had the wonderful opportunity to visit with a small community where we had established such a program about 30 miles north of the city of Herat. The village head was a man in his late 50s who had spent the years of Soviet occupation as a refugee in Iran. He told me this as he sat in the village classroom where his teenage daughter and a dozen other girls were soaking up the education of which they had been deprived during the Taliban years. He said with pride that although he could neither read nor write, he was most pleased that his daughter would be far luckier.
The effects that I witnessed in Herat are profound. In some of the communities, no one is able to read except these young girls. In one of the homes we visited, CRS helped to set up a small library with dozens of books on various topics. It is incredibly uplifting to see these teenagers, learning to read for the first time, bring something home to their parents that is going to change their lives. It doesn’t cost a lot of money—but it’s making a huge impact.