x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The Afghan school that teaches girls to say 'no'

In a country notorious for its lack of women's rights, girls at one pioneering school are taught they have choices in life. They learn they have a right to education and can stand up for themselves against their elders, especially on the subject of forced marriage.

These Afghan schoolgirls are learning to imagine another destiny.
These Afghan schoolgirls are learning to imagine another destiny.

DAH YAYA, Afghanistan // Dah Yaya is an Afghan village set in stony hills and steeped in traditions that limit women to second-class status in this desperately poor country ravaged by Taliban insurgency.

But in a school set up by an Afghan-American woman, girls are learning to dream of a different future, of saying "no" to the unacceptable orders of their elders.

Although just a 40-minute drive from Kabul, the village feels as if it is in the middle of nowhere. The road winds through the arid, dusty hills that encircle the Afghan capital, past mud-brick homes.

Women and girls wear burqas. Only when they are safely through the gates of the Zabuli Education Centre do the schoolgirls take them off and leave them hanging on a banister.

Founded by Razia Jan as part of her battle to educate girls in rural Afghanistan, the school wants to bring change to a country notorious for its dreadful record on women's rights.

"I have 400 girls," says Ms Jan, who founded the school in 2008. Funded by private donors, it offers its pupils a free education.

"We made these girls speak for themselves, so that if something terrible happens in their life and they don't want it, they fight it, they have the force to say no, no, no," she adds. "The more education there is, the more doors open for them."

A massive increase in the number of girls going to school since the fall of the repressive Taliban regime in 2001 is touted as one of the biggest achievements of western intervention in the country.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban banned girls from going to school.

Now, according to the Afghan education ministry, 42 per cent of children in school are girls.

But poor attendance and absenteeism are major problems. Regular, high-profile cases of abuse, intimidation and violence underscore the reality that for many women in some parts of the country, little has changed.

But the Zabuli Education Centre provides girls with a better than average education. Girls as young as four learn English, and they also have access to computers and the internet.

Some of the youngsters profess to being fans of the US superstar Jennifer Lopez, and the Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber - pop singers far beyond the traditional horizons of Afghan culture.

Zuhal Ansaari, 15, is passionate about art and is convinced that one day she can realise her dreams of becoming a teacher.

"Women and men have the same rights," she says.

"If a woman is educated, her role in the family becomes more important, she can teach her children and have a better life, because she knows at least the same things as her husband."

Nazaneen Jahd, 14, even believes that one day Afghanistan could have a female leader, if she is properly educated and gets the chance. "I hope that very soon there will be one," she says.

According to the UN Girls' Education Initiative, the literacy rate for Afghan women between the ages of 15 and 24 is just 18 per cent, compared with 50 per cent for boys. Only 13 per cent of girls complete primary school. It quotes statistics estimating the mean age of marriage at 17, while child marriages (where at least one of the participants is under 18) account for 43 per cent of all marriages, which plays a part in the gender gap in education.

"When a girl becomes an adult or a teenager, their parents, especially their father, can force a girl to marry, even with a 65-year-old man," says Nahid Alawi, a teacher at the school.

The school may not be able to interfere in family matters, but its mission is to support those girls who decide to put their foot down.

"I can give her advice: it's not time for her to get married - but unfortunately some families force them to get married," Ms Alawi said.

Rahila Rohullah, who is in the ninth grade, fought with her family for six months when her father tried to beat and threaten her into marrying the father of a woman he wanted to marry himself.

She resisted, finding at school the support and comfort that allowed her to hold out until her father finally gave up.

"It's my own decision who I will marry, and I won't allow my parents to force me. It's every girl's right," she says.

Mer Ruhullah, the village chief, who sends four of his daughters to the school, says attitudes are starting to change and praises the school for changing the lives of girls in the village.

"There is no doubt there are people who don't want such a girls' school in our village," he says. "There are also people who don't send their girls to school, but times have changed. People are more open-minded now."

But Ms Jan still fears that one day her efforts could be destroyed, should the Taliban return to government as part of any peace deal after US-led Nato combat troops withdraw next year.

"You cannot trust them, they're murderers," she says.

"When a snake bites you once, you don't go to the den again to get bitten."