Today was a day of superwomen. We start out in the morning with a visit to the deputy head of the women’s shura (council) of Dara Azhdar. The actual head of the council is away – she is in Canada studying for an advanced qualification in midwifery, so Zahra Qurbanzada is running things in her absence.
Women’s shuras are not unusual in Bamyan – there are about 130 of them – but the one in Dara Azhdar has been recognised as the best one in the province for three years running. We’ve come because two years ago, our WFP colleague Susannah Nicol visited this village to see a successful tree planting project (read story here), and I wanted to see how things had progressed.
“About 60% of the original trees are still alive,” Zahra tells us, “including some apricot trees that bore fruit this year.” The water from the natural springs above the valley of Dara Azhdar is salty, and not all trees were able to survive with it – but even after the original WFP food incentives had finished, the women continued their work. The villagers have constructed a natural filtering system using sand and coal to make the water drinkable for themselves.
Zahra (see photo left) is soft-spoken and modest, but as an elected member of the council leadership, she has very clear ideas about what is needed for the community. The women have helped set up solar panel projects, vocational skills courses, and even at one point took to shovels and pickaxes to improve their access road.
Zahra accompanies us to the women’s community centre in the village, run by the NGO Arzu. The complex has classrooms for literacy training, a workshop for carpet weaving and one for bracelet-making, a laundry hall and an industrial-sized kitchen.
Women come here to learn and work – it’s open to anyone, with special attention to vulnerable women such as widows. One such widow is Mahtab (see photo below), who is learning to read and write at the age of 38, and receiving monthly WFP food rations while she’s doing so. This helps her support her four children – and she is proud to point out that her 20-year-old daughter can read and write beautifully. “Education is so important to improve life – I hope my daughter will get a job and have a better life than her mother.”
That’s two pretty impressive women for one day – but wait, there’s more. At the Department of Education’s office for Functional Literacy, we meet Marina, a self-made career woman. She started working there seven months ago as a clerk at the age of 27. This might not sound glamorous, but Marina only learned to read and write at 21, thanks to her single-minded determination.
“When I was a child, my neighbour worked. Every day a car would come and pick her up, and I used to think how wonderful it must be to see things outside of the home, to meet different people… I decided I wanted to be someone when I grew up.”
Her family saw things differently – she wasn’t able to go to school because her parents wanted her at home to help in the house and look after their animals. It was only when WFP started a literacy training course with food incentives that her family allowed her to go. “They said: now you are doing something useful – you are bringing food for the family,” she tells us. After three years she could read and write.
Soon afterwards, she got married. Her spouse, who is illiterate and works as a casual labourer, was supportive when she told him she wanted to work. So she lobbied the local Department of Education to see if she could work in their offices. The director Sayed Habib tells us: “Marina didn’t have the best test results and wasn’t the most qualified candidate – but she was so determined. We decided to hire her because we want her to be an example to women in the community – if you have the confidence, you can get a job.”
She received on-the-job training and gets help from her colleagues, and is confident that pretty soon she’ll be able to manage everything on her own. She brings home about 70 USD per month. “Since I now help support the family, my husband sees me with different eyes. I now have additional value. I’m the educated one in the family!” she laughs.