Reconnecting Afghanistan: From Instability to Opportunity
For centuries, Afghanistan was integral to connectivity—through the Silk Road’s trade and cultural exchange—between Asia and Europe, and within Asia itself. While decades of conflict have diminished this centrality, collaboration and integration remain critical to regional stability.
On 18 June, AKF hosted a panel discussion at the European Development Days in Brussels.
The theme for 2019 was Addressing Inequalities: building a world which leaves no one behind.
AKF’s panel discussion was centred around the findings of a new report by Chatham House, Reconnecting Afghanistan: Lessons in Cross-Border Engagement. This panel brought to light the impact of a variety of projects along and across the Afghan borders that aim to reduce inequalities and unlock the enormous potential of the region. The speakers:
- Explored examples of ‘local’ cross-border interventions, their implication on the economy, livelihood opportunities and job creation.
- Raised the profile of trade, energy and connectivity as effective tools of development, applicable to other contexts.
- Demonstrated that engagement with Afghanistan can bring positive economic benefits.
The STAGES (Steps Towards Afghan Girls’ Education Success) II programme is funded by DFID through its GEC grant scheme. It is being implemented by a consortium of partners, led by the Aga Khan Foundation.
21 August 2019
A man educates a person, while a woman educates a family”
After decades of war in Afghanistan, access to education remains a challenge and the illiteracy rate is very high, particularly among women in rural areas. Mothers during a focus group discussion in Kabul city acknowledge the issue:
Most people believe that girls who are 14 years or older should not go to school and some people arrange their marriage. The mindsets have not changed much.
Research shows that fifty percent of girls drop out of school after grade 6 when they reach puberty and have to demonstrate their ability to adhere to social norms. They are at an age where families consider potential suitors and they also take on the responsibility of the “family name”, outweighing the value of education.
Tabasum, a 17-year old lower secondary student in a Community Based Education class (CBE) in Faryab province has five sisters who were never allowed to go to secondary school after completing their primary education. Their father had decided they should get married before turning eighteen. The same fate awaited her. She recalled:
I was so frustrated and lost hope when my family discussed my marriage. I told my family that I did not want to get married at a young age and expressed my wish to complete secondary school because I dreamt of becoming a teacher. However, they went ahead with arranging my marriage.
Aside from the threat of early marriage, adolescent girls often miss class because they are expected to help their mother with household chores as they get older. Rokhsar, a grade 7 CBE student in Khost province was absent very regularly. Her mother, herself illiterate, thought that household chores were more important than her education, stating:
What use is her education? My in-laws get angry when household chores are not performed on time and they want me to involve Rokhsar as well, since learning household chores can help her in future when she starts married life. She is the cause of family arguments and disputes.
“I told my family that I did not want to get married at a young age and expressed my wish to complete secondary school because I dreamt of becoming a teacher.”
STAGES II works with mullahs, school management committee members (SMC) and teachers to slowly change attitudes and gain community support for girls’ right to secondary education. SMC members and the local community play a fundamental role in encouraging parents to allow girls to attend school and they receive training from STAGES on conflict resolution and follow-up on absenteeism or drop out.
Female SMC members and teachers play a critical role in talking to mothers about the importance of their daughters’ education. In Rokhsar’s case, SMC members went to visit her mother and tried to find a solution to her problem. Together, they made a list of household chores, set a schedule for each task and distributed a few chores to Rokhsar after class. They requested her family to arrange their chores without arguing and convinced her mother to support Rokhsar and be patient with her so that she could continue her education. Some mothers during a focus group discussion in Baghlan province, said:
Our daughters are learning in school, we take over the household chores to let them go to their lessons.
STAGES’ midline survey showed that there was a 20 percent decrease in the number of men prioritising marriage over school since the beginning of the project, revealing a shift in attitudes around educated women and their value within the household. Parents are increasingly waiting to marry their daughters until they’ve finished their education, and as such, marriage is seen as less common a reason for dropping out of school among ALP/LSCBE students. A mullah in Khinjan district of Baghlan province, commented:
Girls here mostly get married early but I recommend for families to either delay the marriage time or allow girls to continue their lessons after marriage.
Religious leaders and shura members appear to be more comfortable discussing and promoting the delay of early marriage in the community. However, while 94 percent of SMC members report that they are able to communicate with parents about general issues regarding early marriage, when it comes to a specific situation, ultimately the decision is out of their hands. They often highlight the fact that they can simply advise families to delay marriage, but the economic situation of families is generally more influential. During a focus group discussion in Badakshan province, one girl confirmed:
When girls get married, there are other family problems they have to deal with, so they are not able to continue their schooling.
“Education will enable me to have a voice and participate in decision-making process within my family as well as in my future.”
The FMIC treats 60,000 patients each year from all 34 provinces in Afghanistan. The hospital is run by AKU in partnership with the Government of France, the French NGO La Chaine de L'Espoir, the Government of Afghanistan and the AKDN.
Translation of the Speech of Governor of Bamyan, Afghanistan.
Please find below the English Translation of the Speech of Mohammed Tahir Zuhair, Governor Bamyan Afghanistan sent by my Afghan friend:
The Aga khan is not asking for any return against all his services, donations and assistance. His Highness is representing the Islam of service, love, development and helping others. He is the real spiritual leader of Islam and he is following the Islam introduced by Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family). The Aga khan is promoting happiness, pluralism, respect for each other and improving the livelihood of poor. He is representing Islam of service to Humanity, helping the poor and marginalized people. This is what Islam wants.
The Aga Khan has introduced the Islam to the World as the religion of respect not terror, peace not violence and moderation not bigotry, unity not conflict.
The Aga Khan does not have any biases. He is serving all Muslims and non-Muslims equally without considering their race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sect and faith. He has never asked people to become ismaili in return for his services. One example is Bamayn's Modern hospital built by the Aga Khan. Although the percentage of Ismaili Muslims is very small in Bamyan and majority of people in Bamyan are non-Ismaili Muslims. The Aga Khan has built this hospital for everyone and he has never asked anything in return.
His only objective is serving the human beings and their welfare. He provides free services to Humanity in all continents. This is the real Islam. All Muslims are proud of the Aga Khan.
The Governor congratulated his Highness the Aga Khan on his 60 years of Imamat. He also congratulated his followers in Bamyan and the World and wished him long life. He also mentioned that he is committed as provincial governor and he fully supports AKDN's work in Bamyan. He further said that I am also proud to attend this honorable event.
He further said that those people, who use Islam for their own political benefits are not following real Islam. The real Islam is the one promoted by the Aga Khan.
The aspiring beauticians and tailors of Bamyan – how even a short course can change the course of a life
For many girls in Afghanistan, gaining a secondary education is an achievement against all odds. But for those who do make it this far, there is still a considerable risk that their progress will be undermined by a lack of appropriate employment opportunities for them when they finish their studies.
To help them make the next step into meaningful employment, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) have been working with young women and their communities to find work close to their homes and to provide the necessary vocational training to support them to succeed.
Alim Dara* village in Bamyan province is just one of many villages where AKF has been working with communities to find opportunities for their young women. With no secondary schools anywhere close by, many of the adolescent girls in the village had been forced to end their formal education after primary school. In 2018, AKF established a community-based education secondary class in the village which over 40 local girls attended. AKF spent time speaking with the students about the kind of work they would like to do after they graduated and what skills this would require. The majority of them requested cosmetology (beauty services) and tailoring, due not only to a genuine interest in such work but also because there was a demand for these services in the village: for weddings, brides and their bridal parties typically had to go outside of the village to have their hair and makeup done and to have clothes made.
AKF responded to this request by recruiting cosmetology and tailoring trainers for what would be a three-month course. Seventeen girls joined the cosmetology classes and eight attended the tailoring lessons. The girls were given training for three hours a day, six days a week. AKF then arranged to follow this with entrepreneurship training so the young women could learn how to set up, market and manage their small businesses in the community. Laila, one of the students, remarked:
“There are no beauty parlours in the village and we used to have to go to the district centre, but for the last three months, we’ve been practicing amongst ourselves and solving our own needs, as well as saving the money we would have spent at the beauty parlour. We are improving our skills and hope to open a centre in the village to earn more money and address the needs of our own community girls.”
Aisha, a cosmetology student, was also delighted with the opportunities the course had provided her.
“I was so interested to learn beautification skills outside the village, but because the classes were very far away, my father would not permit me to go and so I could not achieve my dream. I really felt hopeless, but AKF supported our village and in addition to continuing our basic education, I was able to attend the cosmetology course. Now I have the opportunity to achieve my dream – I feel so hopeful and I am really thankful for such a programme.”
One of the added benefits of even a short course like this one, is that it has allowed the girls to support their local economy, since otherwise the money for these services would have been spent outside the village. Moreover, it has helped these young women build their self-esteem and find ways to be financially independent, at the same time as allowing them to serve as role models for younger girls in the community. Not only the younger generation but the whole community can now see first-hand the opportunities that a good education for women and learning vocational skills can bring – informed women who can run their own businesses, support their local economies and inspire the next generation are key to breaking the cycle of poverty that has trapped so many for too long.
Twelve specialist doctors graduate in Kabul hospital ceremony
Kabul, Afghanistan, 7 March 2020 - To meet the critical needs for medical specialists in Afghanistan in fields such as pediatrics and cardiology, the French Medical Institute for Mothers and Children (FMIC) graduated twelve specialists.
Ten male and two female doctors were awarded certificates in seven specialisations, including Anesthesia, Radiology, Orthopaedics, Pediatric Surgery, Pathology, Pediatric Medicine and Cardiology.
The certificates were awarded by Dr. Ahmad Jan Naeem, Advisor to the Minister of Public Health, Afghanistan, and Dr Shafiq Mirzazada, Director, Academic Projects in Afghanistan, Aga Khan University (AKU-APA). FMIC’s Post-Graduate Medical Education (PGME) flagship programme was developed in partnership with the Aga Khan University and Ministry of Public Health.
Ambassador Sheherazade Hirji, AKDN Diplomatic Representative to Afghanistan, said “the PGME programme brings cutting-edge skills and knowledge in Afghanistan while training doctors in rare specialties, promoting clinical practices and evolving research based inquiry in medicine”.
Dr Ahmad Jan Naeem praised the efforts of the graduating doctors with the hope that those doctors will serve the people of Afghanistan to the best of their abilities. He also applauded FMIC’s contribution in improving the healthcare system in Afghanistan.
After studying to be a nurse, Elaha has risen quickly to become a nursing manager at the Faizabad hospital, where she is responsible for scheduling and overseeing all the nurses at the hospital – and has become the primary breadwinner in her family.
Learning must go on — protecting girls’ education in Afghanistan
For many Afghan girls, accessing a quality education is already wrought with challenges — a situation complicated further due to the pandemic. With the closure of schools, we found out how one community are keeping their girls learning against the odds.
Abbas Dara* is a relatively large village for the Andarab district in Baghlan province. Around 300 families live there and most rely on agriculture for income. With the nearest school a long way away, the majority of people are illiterate. Due to concerns for their safety when travelling to school, as well as economic and cultural constraints, girls, in particular, struggle to gain an education.
To provide opportunities for girls, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), with funding from UKAID, established an Accelerated Learning Programme (ALP) class in 2019 for the thirty out-of-school adolescent girls in Abbas Dara. These classes are designed to fast-track learning so that girls who have been unable to study in the past can undertake future education or apply for skills training programmes.
After successfully completing the first grade, the students were on course to start the second grade. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Education announced in March that all schools must close.
In response to the pandemic, AKF staff, community leaders, and teachers had begun to put in place a series of measures and interventions to keep the community safe and raise awareness of the health risks and guidelines for avoiding infection. Health and hygiene materials including masks, gloves and soap were distributed to students, teachers and school committees. The latter two were also provided with guidelines on how to distribute these materials to students.
Firmly on the road to progress – advancements in girls' education in Afghanistan
From being forbidden to enrol in school, to now making up 39% of learners in the country, find out how AKF and its partners – including the UK's Department for International Development – have been instrumental in helping to advance girls' education and what challenges remain.
Improving Adolescents' Lives in Afghanistan programme
In rural Afghanistan, youth represent a large proportion of the population, but they are largely invisible as citizens. Subject to traditional, conservative norms that include unsupportive attitudes towards education, most girls and boys do not complete their secondary studies and are obliged to marry before the age of 18.
In response to this, from May 2017 to April 2020, the Aga Khan Foundation and it partners undertook the Improving Adolescents’ Lives in Afghanistan (IALA) programme to work with over 176,720 adolescents and young adults in the Afghan central highlands, helping them to gain the confidence and skills and opportunities necessary to act as effective agents of change in their communities. Going forward, they realise that only with their full participation in society will life in rural Afghanistan really improve for all.
Kimya: Growing crops, nurturing a community in Afghanistan
After COVID-19 spread across Afghanistan, many, including Kimya’s eldest son, a rental driver, lost their jobs. However, a greenhouse the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) helped her to build has enabled their family to weather the pandemic. Of the 6,000 tomato seedlings produced through the greenhouse, Kimya sold half to support her family’s needs (in the spirit of community philanthropy, she gave the other half to neighbours who could not afford to buy the seedlings).
Kimya lives in Baghlan, Afghanistan. In 2017, a Canadian-supported programme helped her build a low-cost greenhouse, which enabled her to feed her family with the vegetables she produced and supplement the family income from the sale of excess crops and seedlings. “This programme has enabled me to cope with these new problems, and helped my family cope,” she says.
But coping with the pandemic was not enough for the entrepreneurial Kimya. She noticed that when she went back to buy more masks for her children, she noticed the prices had gone up exponentially. She realised she could not afford to keep buying them.
So she went to work. Using some of her earnings from selling the seedlings from her greenhouse, Kimya bought raw materials and started stitching masks at home.
“The masks in the market are very expensive and disposable, but the masks I produce are cheap, and can be washed and reused,” she says.
Her masks sell for AFN 10 (around US$ 0.14 cents) -- about five times cheaper than the disposable ones in the market. On top of earning extra income for her family, Kimya has also provided 300 free masks for people who could not afford them.
While the pandemic has placed added stress and burden on many women like Kimya, it has also highlighted the important role they play in their families and their communities.
Learn more about the Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Programme on the Aga Khan Foundation Canada website by clicking here.
Istoray: Unmasking new opportunities in a time of crisis
With the outbreak of COVID-19, Istoray’s business ground to a halt. A lockdown order on the market where Istoray’s business operated caused her, and many others, to lose their business and income.
“My business was on the brink of falling down, when I suddenly realised that I can save not only my business but also people of my community,” she said. “I analysed the market, saw the [demand for masks,] and started sewing,” she said.
Thanks to a Canadian-supported programme in Afghanistan, she had been equipped in 2019 to grow her business and train new tailors through business skills training. When COVID-19 hit, she was prepared. Now she makes 400 to 500 masks every day out of her home which, with the help of her children, are sold locally. A nearby drugstore also stocks her masks in packages of 12.
Istoray is not only helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by providing masks at an affordable price to her community, she has found a way to thrive during a period of crisis. Selling masks has doubled her monthly income at a time when many businesses have struggled to make ends meet.
In the future, Istoray hopes to extend her business even further by producing other quality protective clothes -- once she finds a supplier who can keep up with her demand for materials.
By empowering women like Istoray, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) is helping build communities and economies that are resilient to change and crises. Learn more about the Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Programme by clicking on the Aga Khan Foundation Canada site here.
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