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Voices of Hope from the Women Deliver Conference

Two women featured in "We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope", along with Sherrie Rollins Westin of Sesame Workshop, joined the Bush Institute's Women's Initiative on a panel at the Women Deliver global conference in Copenhagen, Denmark this week.

Article by Betsy Martin May 18, 2016 //   8 minute read

Through the Bush Institute’s new book “We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope”, our Women’s Initiative is committed to sharing bright spots, or as we call them, “voices of the hope,” in Afghanistan. Two of the women featured in the book, Razia Jan and Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, along with Sherrie Rollins Westin of Sesame Workshop, joined me on a panel at the Women Deliver global conference in Copenhagen, Denmark this week to discuss the value of girls’ education in Afghanistan. Each of these education champions shared thoughtful insights on everything from why men are important to this conversation to the success of their programs. Three stories stood out from the conversation.

Polio Does Not Affect a Girl’s Mind

When Razia returned to Afghanistan in 2002, she wanted to help return Afghanistan to the peaceful country of her childhood.  As an active Rotarian in the United States for 30 years, she personifies the Rotarian motto, “Service before self” and assisted with a number of volunteer projects in her home country. No matter what project she organized, she continually noted the desperate situation for girls.  Razia decided the best way to help these girls was to educate them.  She committed to building a girls’ school and selected a community that had never had a girls’ school before.  Not surprisingly, Razia decided to build the new school on the site of a bombed out former boys’ school.  

Today, Razia provides free, quality education to 580 girls in a rural community in Afghanistan.  One of the girls in the community, a four year old little girl, had been left out of the education system simply because her body was ravaged by polio, leaving her crippled and unable to walk. According to Razia, in Afghanistan polio is likened to a death sentence for most children; they become unvalued and are “simply fed until they die.” Education is out of the question. However, this girl had older sisters who attended Razia’s school and like any older sister will tell you, younger sisters always want to copy everything their older sister does. This four year-old girl was no different and would cry every day when her sisters left for school, begging for someone to carry her with them so that she could learn, too. 

Thanks to a supportive dad who eventually carried her to school and asked Razia if they could help her, this young girl is now exceling in school. And not only is she growing mentally, she has recently begun standing thanks to specialized therapy exercises recommended by a doctor, a custom-fitted desk to support her legs, and a carriage to wheel her to and from school (and I would argue a sense of value and belonging) all arranged by Razia. Polio did not affect her mind or ability to learn - just her legs.  This is a mindset shift that needs to happen.

Changing mindset is the greatest impact we can have.” – Sherrie Rollins Westin

Sherrie Westin is in the business of mindset shifts.  Sesame Workshop, the non-profit arm of Sesame Street, recently launched their latest girl power Muppet, Zari, which translates to “shimmering” in Dari and Peshto.  And Zari shimmers.  She is a bubbly, vivacious little girl who includes a school uniform among her three outfits for the show. We know that at the heart of education for girls in Afghanistan, a paradigm shift is needed among men and boys around the value and equality of girls. Zari, from a young age, is working to shatter stereotypes about girls by modeling behavior not only for preschool-aged girls and boys who watch or listen to Sesame Street, but also for the parents.

Sherrie noted that while the content is designed for children, it also helps change the father’s view of their daughters in particular. Scenes in which the father helps Zari pack her school bag or watching Zari play sports are critical, teaching a new path to the next generation of boys and girls – and hopefully the men.  In a recent article, Sherrie pointed to research that has shown that previous seasons of the show have begun to open the minds of Afghan fathers about the value of educating their daughters.  A true bright spot to be celebrated – go Zari!

“Education is a right of every individual” - Dr. Sakena Yacoobi

Sakena recollected how her father, an orphan himself at the age of five, determined that his children would have an education regardless of gender.  Sakena remembers her father taking her by the hand at the age of four and walking her to the local mosque for schooling.  After earning her own advanced degree abroad, Sakena returned to Afghanistan in the 1990s and saw the devastation facing her people in the refugee camp in Pakistan.  She described feeling overwhelmed and helpless as to how she, one woman, could help this community.  She went back to the lesson she learned from her father: education. “Education changed my life.  With education, I was able to help my own family.  Once you have education, no one can ever take that away from you. If you have education, you can start over.  The one thing my father always wanted for me was to go after my own education.  What, I thought, if I could educate these people in this camp?”

Sakena’s education program took off – in one year, her team had opened 25 schools and 15,000 kids were attending school. From there she opened underground schools in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime and went on to incorporate training for men after a particularly interesting encounter with a group of male militants which she describes here.   It has only grown from there.

Today, her Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) program services over 12 million people by providing education, training, healthcare, and legal services.  Sakena notes that despite AIL’s success, they are only serving 11 of Afghanistan’s 33 provinces.  The other 22 provinces are unable to be reached for a host of reasons.  While incredible progress has been made, there is still work to be done to provide education for all. 

My closing question to the panelists centered around their hopes for the future.  Razia summed it up beautifully when she said, “Kids in kindergarten are the hope for the future of Afghanistan." It’s a reminder that these are not only Afghan voices of hope – they are universal.