When Nadia was a young girl growing up under Taleban rule in the southeastern province of Khost, she longed to go to school. As soon as the regime fell in 2001, she decided it was time to begin her education.
“At first, no one at home would allow me,” she recalled. “I cried. Finally, my father agreed and enrolled me in school. All my relatives laughed at me, saying I had trampled on Pashtun honour. I heard a lot of insulting words on the way [to school] and in the alleys, but I pretended I didn’t see or hear anything.”
Today, Nadia works at a healthcare centre in the Khost province of southeastern Afghanistan. “Those who once laughed at me now beg me for assistance,” she said, adding that she was proud to be able to help her own family as well as serve the community.
Residents of Khost say female access to education has improved vastly in recent years, in a province where schooling even for boys was once seen as undesirable. More than 100,000 girls are now in education across the province, which has a total population of 547,000, according to recent Afghan government statistics.
Amir Sayid, a teacher, told IWPR that when he was young, local people believed that anyone who went to school would abandon Islam, and parents did whatever they could to avoid compulsory education for their sons.
“I was enrolled in school in 1970,” he said. “My father was very poor, and he wasn’t able to offer bribes of money, chickens or other things to the education department officials who were forcing boys to go to school, in order to save me from being enrolled. Our neighbours were better-off than us and they were able to give the teachers presents and money as bribes. Their sons didn’t go to school, but I went – I was unable not to, as a poor man's son.”
“People would even send their children to hide in their relatives’ houses, because they were afraid they would be enrolled in school,” he added.
Sayid Amir recalls that in those days, there were no girls’ schools in the province at all.
“Out of every 20 or 30 girls, one would be able to recite the Holy Koran,” he added.
Matiullah Fazli, deputy director of the Khost education department, told IWPR that the province currently had 14 high schools, 17 middle schools and 36 primary schools where girls could study free from any risk of intimidation.
In addition to some 91,500 girls enrolled in state schools, there were nearly 13,000 in religious, private and foreign-funded institutions, as well as more studying in higher education colleges, he added.
Fazli said that his department planned to build four new schools and take in 20,000 more girls.
Khawar Amiri, director of the women’s affairs department in Khost, said her office had launched a number of campaigns on female education, as well as directly contacting families, with positive results.
“We have implemented several programmes in the centre and the districts,” she said. “We have told the public how valuable knowledge is, and how much girls’ and women's education is needed.”
Civil society groups in Khost claim some of the credit for changing local attitudes towards female education.
“We have held dozens of meetings and workshops with tribal elders, elderly people, women and villagers in the centre and in the districts,” said Bostan Walizai, head of the Civil Society and Human Rights Organisation in the province. “We have made a lot of efforts to motivate people towards education and get them to understand its value.”
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has also been active, according to its regional spokesman Adel Aziz.
“We hold annual educational meetings with tribal elders, families and women in schools. We have also made maximum efforts through radio and television to motivate people to enrol their sons and daughters in school,” he said. “Also, we have asked religious scholars to encourage people, in accordance with the tenets of Islam, to send their sons and daughters to be educated. We can see the effectiveness of these activities.”
Rahim Shah Adel, a social affairs commentator, said that in the past, widespread poverty was an obstacle to education. One initiative that helped change things, he said, was a decision by organisations like the World Food Programme, USAID and the Afghan education ministry to offer five kilograms of cooking oil to households for each daughter they had in school.
Another expert, Amir Shah Kargar, pointed out that many people from Khost had broadened their horizons by travelling abroad to work, particularly in Gulf states.
“People from Khost who live in foreign countries have come to realise the importance of knowledge,” he said. “They see how Arabs and people from other countries live there. They are inspired by them and motivated to enrol their daughters along with their sons in school.”
One Khost resident, Maruf Khan, spent decades living in the United Arab Emirates and said he saw for himself how girls there benefitted from education.
“I have enrolled ten girls from my family – my own daughters and my nieces. This wrecked and ruined country cannot be rebuilt by men alone. Women account for 50 per cent of the population,” he said. “Although my brothers and even the women in the family didn’t agree with me sending the girls to school, I succeeded in doing so.”
Some believe the media has had a significant impact on public attitudes in recent years.
“As well as increasing people’s awareness, the media has worked a lot in this respect in Khost,” said Nasir Ahmad Roshan, an analyst. “I hear ten to 15 local media programmes a week where experts discuss the value of education and how to solve problems in this regard, and describe male and female education as equal in value.”
Some women in Khost have experienced the changing attitudes for themselves.
Afsana, from the Ismail Khel district, said that in the early post-Taleban years, people still held largely negative attitudes to female education.
“I was enrolled at the beginning of the interim administration [December 2001]. Most people taunted me. They’d say bad things to me and some even called me names,” she said. “But I continued with my education despite all the problems. I am studying in the 12th grade now. I will go on to university, God willing. I will work for my country alongside my brothers.”
A tribal elder in Khost, Hajji Rahmat Gol, said he was pleased to see the progress made in female education.
“Twenty years ago, there were no female doctors or nurses in Khost,” he recalled. “Thankfully, we have female doctors and nurses in all areas now,” he said. “I’m a strong supporter girls’ education. We understand the value of educating them now.”(IWPR)