On International Women’s Day, WFP USA celebrates one of its grassroots partners in the field, a nonprofit called the Afghan Friends Network (AFN), which provides literacy and vocational training for women in rural Afghanistan as well as education for boys and girls. AFN is spearheading the country’s first-ever children’s curriculum on women’s rights, which is expected to be introduced this fall.
The last time Humaira Ghilzai visited Ghazni in Afghanistan, she was excited to see one of the city’s only classrooms crowded with children. “I dream of an Afghanistan that is peaceful, in which girls and boys have abundant access to education and play an active role in rebuilding their country,” she says of the nation where she was born and raised.
Ghilzai is the co-founder of the Afghan Friends Network
(AFN), a grassroots non-profit that is trying to restore Ghazni’s legacy as a thriving center of education. Located just 90 miles southwest of Kabul, Ghazni is a city of 140,000 people in a large, mostly rural province. Home to a diverse mix of ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtus, Hindus and Sikhs, the city was officially declared the Asian Capital of Islamic Culture by UNESCO last year for its rich history of achievements in philosophy, art, science, math and learning.
But despite its proximity to Kabul, the city’s residents remain largely cut off from the international support that flows to Afghanistan’s capital due to a strong resurgence of the Taliban. The road linking the two cities is riddled with dangerous checkpoints manned by gun-toting Talibs who at times behead people on the side of the road. The province’s roads are poor, making it difficult for families to reach hospitals, jobs or schools, cutting them off from economic opportunity.
Worse still, nearly three decades of violence—Russian occupation, Mujahideen fighting and Taliban rule—have completely broken down the educational system in Afghanistan. Schools have been destroyed, books have been burned and countless teachers and students have been killed for daring to learn. “One of the biggest reasons why we want to be there is because Ghazni is right on the edge where Taliban are very active, so improving access to education can play a huge role in determining the future of the province,” says Eva Vander Giessen, a member of AFN’s Board of Directors.
AFN, which was founded in 2002, is devoted to improving the lives of women and children through literacy and vocational training for women in rural Afghanistan. AFN is also spearheading the country’s first-ever curriculum for boys and girls on gender equality, which it expects to introduce this fall. “Most people I meet in Afghanistan want their children to have education,” Ghilzai says.
That includes the women of Afghanistan, whose oppression worsened under Taliban rule. It was during that time that an Afghan woman named Fatema—a former Minister of Education before the Taliban period—decided to teach lessons in her own home to her daughter, who had no other opportunities to learn. As word spread throughout her community, an experiment in underground homeschooling on Fatema’s unpaved street blossomed into a classroom of 400 girls eager to get an education in a country with an illiteracy rate of 84% among women.
AFN’s educational program has been bolstered by support from the Catherine Bertini Trust for Girls Education
, which is hosted by WFP USA. Last year, AFN welcomed 760 girls into the classroom for the first time, in addition to granting university scholarships to 17 young women and bringing literacy and handiwork skills to 80 women, most of whom are widows who lost their husbands to the nation’s ongoing violence. The organization’s operation in Afghanistan is almost entirely composed of Afghan educators who understand the cultural context and relevance of Afghan history.
This year, Fatema is also leading the creation of Afghanistan's first-ever school curriculum on gender equality for both boys and girls. AFN’s new curriculum will use passages from the Holy Quran, Afghanistan’s constitution, as well as songs and poems about Islamic history to educate boys and girls about women’s rights. It will also include illustrations so children can see concrete examples of female leaders and share it with their relatives, even if their family members are unable to read.
“Our goal is to have boys and girls walk away honoring all women, girls and each other at home and in public,” Vander Giessen says. “We want our students to think of women when they think about role models and heroes from Afghan history and Islamic history that show strength, cleverness, wisdom, compassion, resilience, equality.”
AFN’s work comes at a crucial time in Afghanistan. After decades of war, the country is now facing a hunger crisis
among its children. Doctors believe it is caused in part by a lack of education, especially for the country’s women. Afghanistan is just one of many countries where hunger is the product of inequality rather than a food shortage caused by natural disasters like drought or flood.
Because the majority of the world’s 842 million hungry people are women and girls, closing the gender gap is vital toward solving global hunger. Education means more opportunities for women to lift themselves out of poverty. In fact, one study from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization
showed that women’s access to education has a bigger impact on reducing child malnutrition over time than access to food alone. Research has also shown that women are 10 times more likely than men to spend money on childhood nutrition.
A lack of education, on the other hand, means fewer opportunities, lower family incomes and illiteracy that leads to ignorance about good nutrition, hygiene and family planning practices, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Fatema, whose homegrown school has become one of Ghazni’s most promising education centers, has many dreams for her students. “My dream about my students is that they themselves become agents of change,” she writes from Afghanistan. “I hope on that day when I get sick, my students will be my doctor. When I face a legal problem, my students will be my lawyer. When I need housing, my students will design my house plan.”
And thanks to Fatema, those students are now working toward dreams of their own.
One AFN student named Farzana has even decided to follow Fatema’s footsteps. “I will teach the children of Afghanistan,” she says, “to build a new Afghanistan.”
M.J. Stephey is the Senior Writer/Editor for World Food Program USA. Formerly of TIME and the Smithsonian, she has researched and written about international development, human rights, environmental issues and indigenous culture.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the biggest humanitarian aid agency in the world. When we’re not serving meals in school, we’re shielding mothers and kids from malnutrition. When we’re not saving lives in emergencies, we’re helping families get back on their feet. World Food Program USA works to build support and resources for WFP through advocacy, education and outreach in the United States.