A few weeks ago, Rotary International invited me to speak at the Peacebuilding Through Education and Literacy Conference held in Chicago, Illinois. I welcomed the opportunity to share with fellow rotarians some of the challenges facing Afghanistan, but more importantly the impact education has had on the lives of Afghans over the past 15–20 years. The relative security over that period has given rise to a unique generation of men and women who are making a difference in ways unimagined by their parents and grandparents. Over the past almost two decades, young Afghans have benefited from increased education opportunities, expanded travel, and exposure to new ideas. These courageous, smart, and capable women and men are now finding their way into increasingly more responsible leadership positions where they will continue to be a force for stability and peace.
In preparation for my presentation, I asked four Afghan women with whom I work in Afghanistan to share their thoughts on education. I was impressed by their frank and realistic assessment of the great challenges that face their country and inspired by their faith in an Afghanistan remade by educated women, in particular. The following are their thoughts.
The basis for all my social, political, and cultural achievements has been education, knowledge and awareness. Without education, I could not have succeeded as a young woman in the political and cultural arena and as one of the young leaders I could not have played a role in today’s society.
Somaia Ramish just completed her term as an elected member of the Herat Provincial Council. She is also a published poet, was recently awarded a master’s degree in Persian literature from Delhi (India) University, and is a candidate for the Afghanistan Parliament.
When I was in elementary school we immigrated to Iran, because of the repressive Taliban government in Afghanistan. The government of Iran didn’t let Afghan children attend school, but some unapproved private schools opened with tuition fees. The only person who helped me was my mother who only had a 4th grade education. During the day my mother was busy caring for five children and the housework, but at night she took on extra sewing projects to pay for my school fees. My mother helped a little girl and now that girl helps other women. I am really thankful for everything my mother did for me. Educated women can change the world.
Fatima Qattali is director of the Women Education for a Better Tomorrow Organization, an Afghan women founded nonprofit working with disadvantaged women in the displaced persons camps in and around Herat, Afghanistan. She is also an educator, a civil society activist, and committed to improving the education opportunities for girls.
Most of my life, I was either a student or a teacher. When I finished high school in Iran as a refugee, I established a school for Afghan refugee children who were not allowed to go to Iranian schools. I started teaching with 10 students and they became more than 300 after 3 years. Local government and police officials closed my school several times because it was illegal, but I opened it each time until I was finally able to register it with the support of the Afghanistan embassy in Tehran. Actually, everybody knew me in that city because I was communicating and fighting with all the authorities to keep my school open. Afghan parents really supported me because they cared for the future of their children.
Fatema Jafari, is a member of the Herat Provincial Council, a published author, and a civil society activist. In 2016, she completed a year-long fellowship with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. and Yale University.
I owe my current status to my education. My tertiary education helped me to get a job and advance my career. Financially independent, I reserved the right to make my own decisions while the patriarchal society of Afghanistan pushed back. I went to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship and completed my graduate studies in one of the best universities in the world. As a Stanford alumnus I returned to prestigious jobs — first with UNICEF and then with World Vision International. I have enjoyed my work as an education practitioner and researcher, but I can also choose my life partner myself which often has not been the case for women in previous generations. For a new generation of educated and financially independent Afghan girls this is a possibility. Education has changed Afghan society in many aspects, but of course women have benefited the most as they have found their voice, their agency, and their rights by gaining an education.
Somaye Sarvarzada graduated from Stanford University on a Fullbright scholarship. She is also a civil society activist, Education Lead for World Vision International, and the incoming president of the Herat Rotary Club.
In a world desperately searching for answers to the problems of instability in conflict areas, the lives of these inspiring women should be evidence of the critical importance of investing in education. A short two decades ago, these women would not have been allowed outside their homes unaccompanied. They now run organizations, seek and win public office, speak loudly in public forums, and advocate on behalf of the disadvantaged. They are iteratively changing the face of Afghanistan for the better. If we have the long-term commitment and patience to support them in their efforts, there is hope that peace will return to Afghanistan.
LTC (ret) Rick Burns is founder and president of The Karadah Project International, an Iowa 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation committed to building sustainable and long-term solutions in partnership with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Karadah Project International
The Karadah Project International is an Iowa 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation committed to building sustainable and long-term solutions in partnership with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.