When a group of seven mothers decided to connect the Carolina Friends School in Durham with a sister school in Afghanistan, the idea seemed simple. The women envisioned a typical project in which their children would raise money and learn about their Afghan peers, both girls and boys. But when the parents and students at Friends School learned that girls had been banned from the sister school, it became apparent that nothing is that simple in Afghanistan today–a valuable lesson for both mothers and students.
Since the first pizza-lunch fundraiser in March, the school has raised $12,000 to donate to an Afghan school. A parent-run committee oversaw the project to raise money through private donations and student fund-raising events. One of the more financially successful fundraisers was a lower and middle school reading marathon that raised $4,624. Smaller contributions came from bake sales, potluck dinners and even donated bat mitzvah money.
Half of the money was sent to Kakoor, Afghanistan, a small town about 10 miles outside of Kabul, to furnish eight classrooms and purchase playground equipment. Despite its proximity to the capital, it’s the town’s first formal school.
The project was run through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The Quaker social-justice organization established an office in Kabul specifically to work on co-ed and all-girls education projects.
Through AFSC, a relationship with the Afghan school formed. The organization made a number of agreements with the government and surrounding community to set guidelines for the donated sister school. Among these were assurances that the entire facility would be built with local labor on land donated by the community. The commitment also guaranteed that both girls and boys would be taught–boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon. The co-ed school opened in March with approximately 300 students.
However, when Tom Moore and Alice Andrews, coordinators of AFSC’s Asia program, visited the site in June, they learned that the agreement had been broken.
“Girls were not being taught at the school,” Andrews says. “The idea of education for girls was too sensitive in this community. The girls were pulled out.”
Moore and Andrews say they believe conservative Pashtun community leaders are responsible for banning the girls. According to the AFSC, the Kakoor community is dominated by the Pashtun, the largest of Afghanistan’s six major ethic groups. They are known for their conservative viewpoints, a fact made clear by the large number of Pashtun leaders in the former Taliban government.
Despite this conservative tradition, both Moore and Andrews insist that many people in the Kakoor community desperately want education for females.
“It’s not the whole village that feels this way,” Andrews says.
However, those voices are not being heard. Instead, conservative leaders have been keeping females out of the education system in Afghanistan for years, as reflected in the low female literacy rate. According to United Nations estimates, only 21 percent of adult women were literate in 2001, compared to 51 percent of the male population.
These statistics reflect the official ban on female education during the years of Taliban rule. However, when the Taliban fell in 2001, the opportunity to educate girls was reopened–a reality many conservative groups have been resisting. This resistance has manifested itself in many ways. The banning of girls from schools, like in Kakoor, is a peaceful example. Other situations have been more violent. Since the AFSC representatives left Afghanistan in June, at least three co-ed and all-girls schools within 30 miles of Kabul have been burned down.
Despite the odds, the AFSC thought their agreement, complete with fingerprint stamps of commitment, would be enough to outweigh the conservative leadership. It was not.
“It was a lesson and a reality check,” Andrews says. Despite the disappointment of the broken contract, Carolina Friends School has decided not to accept defeat. Instead, the parents and staff are harnessing the experience as an education tool.
“We realized it was cultural,” says Jenny Rousseau, a member of the Afghan Sister School Committee and the mother of Ben, a third-grader, and Juliette, who’s in seventh grade. “No one sees this as a failure at all. We can’t go in and change everything overnight. We don’t want to.”
However, the leaders have a decision to make. There is still $6,000 to donate. The school has not yet decided what to do with the remaining money, but funding a different co-ed school in a more liberal Afghan town seems likely. No more money is being sent to Kakoor until the girls return to school.
Although the funds are being terminated, parents and staff at Friends School say they hope the relationship with students in Kakoor continues.
“We’ve been talking about ways to maintain contact with Kakoor, and hopefully continue to encourage girls’ education,” says Melissa Marion, a member of the Afghan Sister School Committee and the mother of Dru, who’s in seventh grade, and Kyle, who’s a senior.
One way this is being accomplished is through a letter writing project between the two schools.
“We’ve received a set of letters and photos from the boys at Kakoor School and their enthusiasm and questions are great to see.” Marion says.
Communication is reinforcing the school’s commitment to maintain contact.
“We’re hoping for change,” Rousseau says. “We haven’t given up on them.”