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Afghan women brave insecurity to go back to school

Thousands of Afghan women are defying potential threats to take their first steps in education. WFP Afghanistan spokesperson Jackie Dent reports on how WFP food is playing an important role in getting Afghan women out of the house and into the classroom.

Thousands of Afghan women are defying potential threats to take their first steps in education. WFP Afghanistan spokesperson Jackie Dent reports on how WFP food is playing an important role in getting Afghan women out of the house and into the classroom.

With a raft of deadly suicide attacks this year, the people of Kandahar have become wary of going outside. Locals say when they do go out, they now say a prayer and give everyone in their family a loving kiss goodbye – just in

I used to go through garbage bins to feed my family. I used to pray to Allah each day that one day I would eat fresh food
BiBi Jan
case.

This wariness has seeped into the city. Many of the charming old buildings along the main Eid Gah Jada boulevard are shut. Property prices have plummeted and for entrepreneurs, now might be a good time to buy. Unemployment in the city is said to be as high as 70 percent.

Sense of freedom

Despite the unease which is affecting daily life, surprisingly, it is the city’s women who have found a new sense of freedom - many of them thanks to UN World Food Programme food assistance.

Each day, thousands of women are braving insecurity to go back to school in a city notorious for its strict attitudes and frequent harsh treatment of women.

From crumbling government buildings to the basements of unassuming mud brick homes, Kandahari women have found the right to learn.

Rations for skills

In just five years, the numbers of women learning to read and write, and gain handicraft skills, has leapt from a few hundred to close to five thousand in Kandahar city alone.

The sharp jump in attendance can largely be attributed to WFP's monthly rations of wheat, vegetable oil, pulses and salt, which act as an incentive for men to allow their wives, daughters and sisters to leave the home and attend the literacy classes.

In a society where cultural mores make it difficult for a woman to work, the food they bring home is a valuable contribution to family life, particularly if they are widows.

Positive changes

“A lot of positive changes have occurred in women’s lives and right now it is better,” said Abdul Baqi Popal, the bespectacled head of Kandahar’s department of literacy which is located in a run-down office building in the centre of town.

Sitting on a couch nearby is Hanifa Azizi, a supervisor for one

Copyright: 2007 WFP/Jackie Dent
Hanifa Azizi
of the projects. “I was jobless during the Taliban,” she said. “But now we are very pleased that we are allowed to come out of our homes and have the permission to go to school and learn something. The learning centres are very happy places for women.”

Tough times

The basement of Mercy Malaysia, an NGO, is busy with the sounds of women talking as they sew, carpet weave and crochet.

Some of the women’s creations are impressive and beautiful, particularly the embroidered shirts and scarves.

Kandahar is well-known for its exquisite embroidery and knowledge of the craft is potentially lucrative -- an elaborately embroidered shirt can sell for as much as US$200 and take up to three months to make.

Begging

Most of the women in the class have lived miserable lives. Widowed and poor, they have spent a large portion of their lives begging for food from relatives or on the street.

Gul has lost her husband, nephew and daughter. Zarghuna’s husband was shot dead 20 years ago and her daughter is also a widow. BiBi Jan has been a widow for 12 years and has nine children.

“I used to go through garbage bins to feed my family. I used to pray to Allah each day that I would eat fresh food,” she says.

Despite the backdrop of hardship in their lives, all the women say the monthly food they receive from WFP and their new skills are helping ease some of their stresses.

“I have learned a lot of skills here. I have learned how to prepare dresses and other skills,” says Zarghuna. “Through these new skills, I want to earn money.”

A revolution

During the reign of the Taliban, the women of Kandahar – like women in other parts of the country controlled by the regime – were unable to work, gain an education or visit a male doctor.

Women found in the streets without a male escort were lashed and sent to prison.

Trapped at home, they were cut off from social contact and participation in community activities. Women still face enormous pressures for challenging the status quo.

Late last year, Safiya Ama Jan, the head of the ministry of women’s affairs department and a well-known women’s activist, was shot dead in the street.

Death threats

She had championed the education of girls and women, and had opened vocational centres. Other women activists receive death threats and “night letters”.

Despite the potential threats, thousands of women are heading to the education centres each day.

Popal, from the department of literacy, believes the success has come through close community consultation. He said it is important families feel confident that the courses are acceptable to the whole of society.

Curriculum

“Before anything, we tell the village elders, and we tell the people of the village about the method, and why we came. After their acceptance, we start our programme,” he said, adding that the curriculum covers everything from religion to cooking to women’s rights.

For others, the success of the schemes is related to the food. “We are poor and we need WFP assistance. I don’t think I would be able to come to the centre without the food assistance,” said Maryam Imam Hussain, a mother of five, at the learning centre in Kabul Shah.

“The food I get helps me contribute to my family and I am also becoming better educated,” she said.