By Kulsoom Rizvi

Meet Nargiza Khojaeva and Munisa Sharifkhojaeva – two ambitious 15-year-old girls from the Gharm district of Tajikistan. Both girls spent most of their childhood in Rasht Valley, a traditional, rural community in Gharm located in the northeastern part of Tajikistan, which has the highest school dropout rates than the national average for both boys and girls – ranging from 11 per cent to 14 per cent.

Much of rural Tajikistan carries a restrictive view of the role of women in society. Girls’ education continues to be a major concern in the country with enrollment rates in the upper grades low and dropout rates high.

“Many bright, young girls of Rasht Valley run into the cold cultural wall blocking them from higher education. Most cannot fight back and as a result, their educational growth is prematurely cut off after ninth grade as the only thing expected from them, is that they get married,” Nargiza said.

Munisa recalls many of her fellow female classmates are forced to drop out of school for early marriage.

“We are 14 girls in my class now. In less than a year, I am sure we will have only 8 girls in the class. My classmates will leave school at grade 10,’ Munisa says. Parents in our village do not want their daughters to continue education. My mother was a very bright student at school, but because of her early marriage she was forced to stop her studies. She dreams to see me educated.”

Marrying girls off early is a way for poverty-stricken families to conserve their own limited resources. Tajikistan has one of the lowest per capital GDPs among the former Soviet republics. Because of the lack of employment opportunities in the country, as many as a million Tajik citizens work abroad, almost all of them in Russia, supporting their families remotely.

Through Counterpart International’s Young Leaders Program (YLP), the girls saw a window of opportunity for  their future and shaping the future of other girls to come.

Nargiza and Munisa attended a 10-week civic education course organized by YLP that educated 222 youth participants from Rasht Valley on the core principles and values of volunteerism, civic participation and human rights. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program supports active, civically engaged, and socially conscious youth in Tajikistan, providing young people with the tools and experience to take ownership of their future.

Targeting the Rural Youth

Nargiza dreams to become a journalist. While taking the civic education course, she learned how to communicate her arguments. From the course, Munisa took away skills in analytical thinking. She would like to become a lawyer someday.

“I would like to deliver this course to 14 schools in my village,” says Munisa.” I want the girls from my village to know that there is nothing to fear about wanting to learn. Parents in my village should change their conservative view on educating women and accept education as a way for girls embrace knowledge. When a person is open to learning, a world of opportunities opens up.”

One of the program’s main activities is to educate and improve the skills of the rural youth in public speaking and debate techniques and methods.

“The goal of the civic education course is to promote understanding of the democratic process in Tajikistan. It emphasized the role of the individual and the family in Tajik society as well as citizens’ rights and responsibilities. It’s important for youth to have an active voice in a democratic society. We’re creating and supporting our future leaders,” Coordinator of YLP in Gharm Shamsullo Mirzoev says.

After completing the course, Nargiza and Munisa decided to participate in a regional debate to further promote their goal in making a difference for girls and education.

The debate, funded by the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, gathered around 50 participants from Rasht Pedagogical University and the Gharm Medical College. The girls were considered the youngest and most active participants at the regional debate tournaments – winning the debate on gender equality in education. Both girls were invited to participate in the “Voices of Youth” debate organized by Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia and the World Bank which gathered youth from all over the country.

“The award is an amazing opportunity to further youth leadership development, to make a tangible difference and inspire others. I am going to continue active participation to exercise my rights and democracy and to force for change in my community,” Nargis says.

Nargiza and Munisa hope to start a debate club for girls in their community, continuing to expand the dialogue on gender issues.

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