While on an ordinary visit to my neighbor during my last trip back home to Kabul in October, I met an extraordinary little girl.
We met by coincidence, as she and her mother were also guests of my neighbor, who was holding a small gathering at her home. At only 12 years old, she has already overcome incredible obstacles to go to school, and her determination is unwavering. Her mother asked that I not use their names, but as soon as she learned from our mutual friend that I work as a journalist for Radio Azadi, RFE/RL’s service to Afghanistan, she insisted that I interview her daughter about her struggle so that other Afghans can hear what girls go through to get an education.
The girl explained that after her father died, her mother struggled to feed her three children, let alone send them to school. With her health failing and nowhere else to turn, she decided to send the girl, her eldest, to an orphanage where she lives during the week and attends school for free.The girl says she desperately misses her mother and her family, but she’s happy at the orphanage because she can go to school.
“There is nothing in our house, and at the orphanage I have access to everything, but when I go home I’m very happy because my mother is with me,” she said. “When I go home I help my mother bake bread and clean. My mother teaches me how to cook, and that’s what I do until I come back to the orphanage.”
Her mother suffers from a bone disease, and the girl explained that she wants to become a doctor so she can treat her mother.
"I want to serve my society and my mother, too. Her legs hurt, and I want to heal them."
Despite her frail condition, the girl’s mother stood up to relatives who were against the idea of the girl going away to school.
“My relatives said that when I get married and go to my husband’s home, I’ll be expected to cook, not to study,” the girl said. “I told them I’ll do the cooking and study, too. I can do both.”
The girl is lucky, as there are millions of Afghan children who don’t attend school. A lack of facilities, poverty, and a general lack of security in many parts of the country prevent those children from learning. For girls, added to these obstacles is a persistent conservative view in many communities against girls’ education.
But things are slowly improving. According to the Afghan Education Ministry, 9 million children currently attend school around the country, and about 40 percent of them are girls.
The Education Ministry says that most of the estimated 3.5 million remaining children who do not attend school are girls. Afghanistan’s female literacy rate is also among the lowest in the word at around 17 percent, according to a 2015 UNESCO report.
Women’s rights activist Maryam Amarkhel says that women’s exclusion from education has severe consequences for society and that society has to change.
“When a woman is uneducated, she blindly accepts any statement made about her and she assumes she is incapable of great achievements,” Amarkhel said. “She thinks she can’t take part in politics or be self-sufficient. She has been given this way of thinking by our people and by our men.”
I have hope that the determined little girl I met at my neighbor’s home in Kabul will not succumb to this way of thinking, and that she’ll be an example for many others.
--Freba Mohd Zaher