Two Wrongs do not Un-make a Right: Continue Investing in Women’s Education and Empowerment in Afghanistan
In spite of Greg Mortenson’s dizzying fall from grace when “60 Minutes” dismantled his wildly successful tale of building schools, it is still possible for Americans to help Afghan girls to realize their right to education. Disillusionment with field reports that the schools he describes in Three Cups of Tea are filled with hay instead of children, and his Waziristani protectors’ allegations that he faked his kidnapping in their village – aside, his tale of educating Afghan and Pakistan children has sown seeds for future good. After learning that the majority of Afghans, especially women and girls, are unable to exercise their right to education, many of the four million people who bought the best seller have given money to the Central Asian Institute (CAI), the author’s non-profit organization “with the mission to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls.” Tens of thousands of school children have emptied their piggy banks for coins – “Pennies for Peace,” Mortenson’s service learning program aimed at building schools to “give lasting hope to children half a world away.”
Mortenson “was profoundly right about some big things,” wrote his crestfallen friend, Nicolas Kristof on April 21 in the New York Times. “He was right about the need for American outreach in the Muslim world. He was right that building schools tends to promote stability more than dropping bombs. He was right about the transformative power of education, especially girls’ education.”
Intoxicated by Three Cups of Tea, donors, young and old, must be reassured that their intention is a noble one – and that the need for female education in Afghanistan is dire. Only 15 % of Afghan girls are enrolled in secondary school – and even less actually attend (UNICEF, 2011). 88 % of Afghan women over age 15 cannot read and write, and 94% of Afghanistan’s two million war widows are illiterate.
Mortenson’s followers’ wish to promote girls’ education as a means of achieving peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan can be leveraged – but only if they invest in programs that reduce the true barriers to their learning. Building schools does not guarantee girls education. Why not? The answer to this question can guide future investment in Afghanistan. A new report by Oxfam and 16 international aid organizations, “High Stakes: Girls’ Education in Afghanistan,” warns that early marriage, poverty and insecurity could undo the major success story of girls attending school in Afghanistan deter Afghans from sending their children to school.
Most Afghans do not have the means to educate their children. While public schools do not charge tuition, parents are unable to scrape together enough money for uniforms, supplies, and transportation. Furthermore, the opportunity costs of sending children to school are high: it can mean income foregone from children’s labor. Early marriage further erodes girls’ chances of going to school: 54 % of Afghan girls are married before the age of 18.
As the number of children who go to school in Afghanistan increases, more children have been exposed to threats and violence. Extreme Islamist militias including the Taliban covet symbolic attacks on schools. Banning girls from school was one of the most notorious symbols of Taliban rule (before they were overthrown in November, 2011). There were 613 insurgent attacks on schools in 2009, and 450 schools were closed in 2010. The faces of girls and women teachers disfigured from acid during the horrifying 2009 attacks in Kandahar remind us that females are targeted.
Parents decide to keep their daughters at home for two other reasons: suspicion of mandatory education policies imposed by the Government of Afghanistan and, perhaps most formidably, cultural pressure to protect family honor. Mistrust, growing out of a century of mandatory education imposed on Afghans – by its own monarchs, the Soviets, and now, the Karzai Government and donors – hinders parents’ willingness to let their children go to school. In the 1920s, upon returning from Europe, King Amanullah sought to modernize Afghanistan – through mandating women’s education, among other social changes. Conservative tribal leaders organized and fought against women’s education and personal freedoms, claiming that these policies violated sensitive tribal values and religious customs. Half a century later, the Soviet-backed government imposed mandatory girls’ education, causing a backlash against the Communist state for assaulting families’ “traditional honor.” And today, the Karzai Government, viewed by many as corrupt, and its Western and UN donors, are strongly associated with the “Back to School” campaign,” launched in 2002.
Furthermore, enormous cultural barriers block girls’ access to education. The western concept of return on investment articulated by Larry Summers when he was World Bank Chief Economist that “education in girls is the best investment in development” does not make cultural sense to illiterate Afghans. Leaving the confines of the family compound to go to school defies the tradition of seclusion of girls after puberty.
The media’s microscopic focus should look beyond Mortensen’s Central Asian Institute to illuminate other efforts to break down real barriers to access to education. This is difficult and at times may seem like a Sisyphean task: only those organizations that engage local communities in a meaningful – and long term – partnership can succeed. A long vision is rare when most Western donors are convinced that success is measured by quick “returns on their investment” – their funders’ accelerated time clocks do not give them the luxury of patience. Real change is incremental: the results are generational.
In sharp contrast to this standard development model, Rubia, Inc., a non-profit started in the year 2000 by a linguist from New Hampshire during her research on a minority ethno-linguistic group, the Pashai, is in Afghanistan for the long haul. Rubia’s commitment to “Mending Afghanistan Stitch by Stitch,” reflects its vast time horizon. Rubia’s approach, combining income generation through the sale of traditional embroidery with literacy, grew out of an Afghan family’s plea for help in making ends meet as refugees in Pakistan where they had fled to escape the Taliban. The response builds on the tradition of passing old skills down from mother to daughter. Careful listening to the community’s needs and understanding of its heritage enhanced the likelihood that the project would survive the stresses of war, displacement, and religious extremism.
The Pashai community brought their new skills and income-generating potential across the border to their ancestral home in Darrai Noor where subsistence farmers grow poppies to earn their livelihoods. With the motto, “Sew Don’t Grow,” the women embroider poppies and other traditional designs to sell in the US as an alternative source of income. Trained Afghan facilitators integrate literacy into handwork lessons: the needle becomes the pen they used to sign their names –often for the first time. Mothers who learn to read and write in their own language are more likely to send their daughters to school, as are educated fathers. A profound cultural understanding that change is generational has guided Rubia’s decade of engagement in Afghanistan.
Rubia’s integration of income generation, literacy, and empowerment addresses the barriers to girls’ education: poverty, suspicion of education imposed from the outside, insecurity and cultural pressure to protect girls honor, and security, by not disturbing traditional family and community practices. Rather than supplying bricks and mortar, Rubia focuses on increasing parents’ desire to educate their children, both boys and girls, and building women’s self-confidence through financial empowerment. Money in her own hands bolsters a woman’s standing in her family, her respect among her peers and decision-making power in the household. Significantly, men are involved in all aspects of Rubia’s programs, sourcing the raw materials, marketing the finished hand work, and in doing so become part of the change in mentality that is needed to make education a family priority.
Those inspired by Mortenson should not give up: they can donate to organizations that are effective in persuading Afghan mothers and fathers to send their children to school. While funding is important, it is trusted, long-term partnerships with Afghans, like Rubia’s with its Afghan counterpart, RODA, that can accelerate progress on education – and that will take more than three cups of tea.