Monday, August 4, 2014

40,000 Brave Girls of Shindand District Fight On for their Education

From 2009-2012, I served as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Field Program Officer in Shindand District. Shindand District was considered one of the most dangerous districts in the western part of Afghanistan. When I told my Afghan colleagues I was going to Shindand, they just shook their heads and wished me the best. When our Ambassador found out USAID was sending a representative to Shindand, he asked surprisingly, "we are now sending civilians to Shindand?"

I decided to "google" Shindand and find out what the fuss was all about. Everything written about Shindand was about the on-going violence. Amongst them was, the bombing of a wedding ceremony by the Coalition Forces, inter-tribal (Pashtun vs Tajik) and intra-tribal (Pashtun vs Pashtun) violence, Coalition vs Afghan and Afghan vs Coalition fighting.

Shindand District, though a district, is bigger than some of the provinces in Afghanistan. It is made up of majority Pashtun tribes and sub-tribes along with Tajik groups. Most inhabitants in the district are bilingual speaking both Pashto and Dari.

Before I got to Shindand  and when I first arrived there I heard from many so called "informed" individuals that the inhabitants of Shindand are not interested in education, that they don't want to send their boys, how much more their girls to school. The citizens will listen to whatever the Taliban decree specially in terms of educating girls.

As I got acquainted with the civilians of the district and as I listened more to them, I realized that the people of this district considered education a top priority for their children both boys and girls. Using local NGOs, and funded by US government (the hard-working US taxpayers will appreciate it), we started computer-training courses for girls in two parts of the district. The reception was so overwhelming that the NGOs had to turn away hundreds of women, who were eager to register. Few days after the start, one of the local school committees (local  Parent-Teacher Association), came to see me and said they had gone to see the classes and were very happy with them. Some members who had only sons asked if next time boys could also be allowed to enroll.

I met elders from other parts of the district who asked that we build them a school for their girls so the female students like their counterparts across the border in Iran, can sit in good facilities and not be bothered by passing public and the weather. I told him, "Haji Mohammad are you just sitting here and telling me to build you a school so you can get money off of the project?", he said, "you can think what you want, but we put a lot of value on girls education!"

On several occasions elders from Shindand went up to Herat to talk to the regional government education officials to ask for better teachers.

All this focus on improvement of education and giving girls access to better education eventually brought the now much marginalized Taliban out of the wood work to try to undermine the community-led effort. One day I got a call from a friend to inform me that the Taliban have ordered the girls in their area not to go to school!!  Because of my close relationship with the local population I was usually called when there was a crisis or conflict to be resolved. Of course, I was not that smart to resolve any of them! but I knew who could, which usually meant bringing the elders together in consultation knowing eventually they could resolve their own issues using their traditional conflict or crisis resolution methods. In this case I called Haji Ghous ( a veteran of the war against the Russians who had lost one of his legs) a respected elder who lived in that area and was an open advocate for girls education based on religious teaching. So I called and asked him if he could counter the Taliban messaging and get the girls back to school. Haji Ghous rallied the other elders and in a couple of days the girls were back in their school. I called Ghous back and he said the Taliban (in a face-saving tactic) had allowed the girls to go back to school only if they respected the Islamic dress-code!!! Which everyone knew was not an issue since the girls always abided by the Islamic dress-code...

One important ingredient of the growing importance of girls education was the close interaction of the donor and the beneficiaries. In a deeply scarred society like Shindand and Afghanistan in general, Afghans needed allies that stood by them through thick and thin, meaning as a USAID field program officer I was there each step of the way, mentoring them if needed and reassuring them that I was in their country to work with them to improve and empower their lives and not just to promote an outsiders agenda. Building trust allowed me to interact directly with rural women, in a place where a non-relative can never talk directly to a female. The close interaction and unwavering support allowed Afghans time to envision what a normal life would look like...and in a normal environment the people of Shindand would overwhelming send their girls to school.

As we fast-forward to today, in the past couple of years, the Taliban have been issuing decrees against sending girls to school....Despite, the threat the people continued to send their girls to school. Having been unsuccessful with verbal threat, the Taliban have attacked the girls schools in the district injuring teachers and students.

Tonight my thoughts are with the brave forty-thousand girls who fight daily to continue their education.

Their struggle continues...