A teacher looks on as a girl completes a lesson on a whiteboard at the Center for Unattended Children in Kabul, Afghanistan. The center is part of the Training and Vocational Center for Unemployed Women, which is supported by Counterpart through partner agency AWEC – the Afghan Women’s Educational Center. © David Snyder/Counterpart International.

By Jennifer Brookland

More than 230 girls in the Afghan village of Sofi Qala are about to benefit from an opportunity that could change the course of their lives. With the opening of a new high school, they will be able to continue their education, improve their literacy and even qualify for the university entrance exams.

“I was worried about what happen if I will not be able to complete high school and have access to pass the university entrance exams,” said one 24-year old housewife who was never able to progress past the ninth grade. With the new high school in town, she will be able to resume her studies, and hopes to one day become a teacher.

Although girls were permitted to go to school following the collapse of the Taliban regime, families in Sofi Qala still struggle to educate their daughters past secondary school – the equivalent of eighth or ninth grade.

Boys can commute several miles to attend classes in other villages, but it was too dangerous for girls to go to school. Parents feared they could be targeted by insurgents.

Women in Sofi Qala think their girls will be better mothers if they learn to read. A high school certificate will also make them more productive members of the community, they say. Some even dream of their daughters continuing their education and eventually becoming doctors or engineers.

It’s a lofty goal compared to the daily reality of most of the 300 families who eke out a living in this southeastern town. Seventy percent of them are classified as poor or very poor, with most relying on farming to earn their meager incomes. With a paucity of economic alternatives, there are few  ways besides agriculture to earn an income.

With limited options to continue past secondary school, most girls end up isolated in their homes, knitting rugs, embroidering and sewing clothes.

Representatives from Sofi Qala took their concerns to a community dialogue organized in February by Counterpart International’s partner organization Help the Afghan Children, and suggested an alternative. They suggested Sofi Qala’s secondary school be developed into a high school.

The issue was subsequently taken up at the Regional Policy Dialogue in Jawzjan Province.

The dialogues are part of Counterpart’s Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society, a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program that works to create and promote a broader and deeper civil society infrastructure that involves and serves the true needs of the population.

Women were active at both the community and regional dialogues, processes that are themselves indicative of Afghan women’s growing willingness and capacity to advocate for their needs.

In this case, the needs of Sofi Qala’s girls were heard. Afghanistan’s Provincial Education Department agreed to expand the village’s secondary school into a high school they could attend.

Soon news of the new high school had spread throughout the village and the community was ecstatic.

“The existence of education facilities are so required to finish high school in my village and this fulfills my big wishes continuing my higher education,” says a girl who is attending classes at the newly-opened school.

The school now serves 231 girls and 272 boys, with lessons in math, science, Dari, Pashto, English and sports. There are currently 14 teachers, nine of whom are women.

But it has a long way to go. It still needs a building with six classrooms, 150 chairs and desks, and a sports ground, laboratory and library. It also needs toilets and potable water.

Despite official sponsorship, there has been no money allocated for the school by the Ministry of Education.

And despite so much community and government support for the project, the villagers also want to erect a wall around the school. They are very concerned for the girls’ security.

Nevertheless, demand for high school classes is huge on the part of girls who now see a window of opportunity for shaping their own futures, and for parents and teachers who want to help them get there.

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