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Home > About Us > Magazine > Battle-Scarred Courage

[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]

With education and job training, women and girls hold the key to Afghanistan’s survival.

World Vision Magazine, Spring 2007

By Kari Costanza

After breakfast one morning, Sara decided she couldn’t take it anymore. She doused herself with gasoline and lit herself on fire. With the strike of a match, Sara became one of hundreds of women who decided last year that self-immolation was preferable to life in western Afghanistan.

Unlike most of these women, Sara survived. Her mother got her to the hospital in the city of Herat where doctors, skilled in caring for burned women or anaesthetizing their last painful days, treated Sara’s wounds and prepared her body—burned from torso to thumb tips—for a skin graft.

Early marriage, forced marriage, polygamy, high maternal and infant death rates, and the lack of education and job opportunities contribute to a bleak life beneath the burka.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]

Sara’s husband visited the burn unit. “What was the matter?” he asked. When Sara told him that she couldn’t bear the fighting—all the bitter arguments with her mother-in-law—he reminded her that this was just part of life in Afghanistan. But he also assured his young wife that he would stay by her side during her treatment and pay her hospital bills.

Sara’s lot is typical of an Afghan woman.

She doesn’t know how old she is (she guesses 18) or when she was marriedmaybe at 12. She has a 3-year-old son. She lives with an extended family of 20—none of whom have steady work. Sara has never been to school. She rarely leaves home.

Five Years After 9/11

It has been more than five years since U.S.-led forces routed the Taliban in their hunt for Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11. Afghanistan has a president, Hamid Karzai, elected in 2004, a National Assembly, and a Supreme Court. Yet democracy has not erased the scars left by years of drought, civil war, and the Soviet occupation—a decade-long bloodbath that killed more than 1 million Afghans and sent millions of others fleeing.

Today, more than half of Afghanistan’s 30 million people live in poverty. Electricity, sanitation, and clean water are rare. Unemployment is high. Professionals such as doctors and teachers barely eke out a living, earning just $50 a month.

For school-age girls, there is hope.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]
The misery is compounded for women. Fifty-seven percent of girls are married before the legal age of 16. Nine of every 10 women cannot read or write. The death rate for women in childbirth is the third-worst in the world, behind Sierra Leone and Angola. Life expectancy for a woman in Afghanistan is 43 years.

Amid this suffering, World Vision is committed to bringing hope to families in Afghanistan, including improving life for women and girls. Relief work initiated five years ago has progressed into development projects aimed at restoring families through health, nutrition, clean water, agriculture—and maybe the most life-changing of all—education.

Educating Najiba

In Qala-i-Naw, 100 miles northeast of Herat, the morning rush to Naswan Girls School is underway. Birds sing and motorbikes scatter the sunlight with dust as hundreds of girls—looking like miniature women in tunics, slacks, and head scarves—bounce down the road, their bookbags or satchels slung over their shoulders. Burka-clad mothers accompany the little ones, their high-heeled sandals clicking along the rocky road. Such shoes, forbidden during the Taliban years because the sound was considered attractive to men, are now back in vogue.

A recent Oxfam report find that just one in 20 Afghan girls goes to secondary school.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]
An armed soldier stands outside the school, his Russian-made Kalashnikov rifle loaded. “The target is the school,” says Qasim Wahdat, a World Vision Qala-i-Naw manager. The school has been guarded since last March, when someone fired a rocket from a nearby mountain, hitting an empty classroom.

Still, Qala-i-Naw is considered a safe zone in Afghanistan, making it ripe for change. Thousands of girls attend Naswan Girls School, with their parents’ blessing. Every few months, their mothers and fathers line up outside school with wheelbarrows ready to cart home oil, rice, lentils, and school stationery. The food supplements are provided as part of World Vision’s Food for Education program, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Najiba, 13, started at the girls school after the Taliban fell. “My father and mother told me I must go to school,” she says. “They said illiteracy is bad.”

On this day, one of the schools’ 77 instructors is absent. So Najiba, who wants to be a teacher, fills in, reviewing the lesson. The topic today is roses. “Roses come up in the spring,” she reads aloud, demonstrating extraordinary poise for a teen. She asks for a volunteer to practice writing on the chalkboard. Crammed into 30 metal desks in the small classroom, the girls must scramble over their desktops to reach the chalkboard.

Najiba credits World Vision's Food for Education program for keeping her in school instead of shelling pistachios for a living.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]

Najiba lives in Qala-i-Naw with her parents, a sister, and six brothers. Her father is unemployed. After school, she and her mother and sister use small hammers to break open pistachio shells. The country exports $130 million in pistachios every year. They are shelled, one by one, in homes across Afghanistan by women and children. Najiba knows that an education is all that separates her from a lifetime of pistachios. Her family knows it, too.
“My family told me, ‘Please go to school. World Vision gives you things. If not—you’ll have to go back to breaking pistachios.’ If there wasn’t anything from World Vision, I would have to stay home,” says Najiba.

Farishta’s Principles

Naswan Girls School’s principal, Farishta Mahmoud Yawar, 27, held classes during the Taliban era. “Families sent their children to my home—boys and girls. It was all secret.” Farishta comes from a family of teachers. Together, they created a school that covered all subjects, from math to geography. They believed that education could lift the veil of ignorance that held their country hostage.

“During the 30 years of war, there were two kinds of people—literate and illiterate,” she says. “[The illiterate] became thieves and robbers. They have nothing else to do. It’s education that makes the difference. If people are educated, they can think about the progress of their country. They can decide right from wrong.”

A visionary, Farishta believes that education breeds stability. “With peace comes security,” she says. “When there is peace, people can learn. They can pass this knowledge on to their children.”

Afghan families earn less than a dollar a day by breaking pistachios.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]
When World Vision began the Food for Education program in Qala-i-Naw, attendance skyrocketed from about 500 to 2,700. Farishta says that number will plummet if the program ends. With so many hungry, food has served as a powerful incentive to get girls to school. “If World Vision stops funding, poor families will marry off their young girls to get an income,” she says.
“Other girls will become pistachio breakers. Enrollment will drop.”

World Vision is dedicated to educating both girls and boys in Afghanistan through programs that build schools, train teachers, and provide backpacks and school clothes. There is a school for boys next to Naswan Girls School that also benefits from the Food for Education program.

In addition, World Vision funds literacy classes for women who never learned to read, write, or do math. Mothers such as Bibihoor, 34, who married at 12 (and her daughter did the same), are now able to see their role in a brighter future. Bibihoor wants the government to put an end to forced early marriages and polygamy. She dreams of being part of the process.

“I want to work hard for my people and give to needy people,” says Bibihoor. “I will make roads. People need water, electricity, hospitals, clinics, and schools.”

While literacy classes are empowering a lost generation of Afghanistan’s women, World Vision goes a step farther by training midwives—tackling two critical issues: women’s lack of health care and poor social status.

Creating Jobs and Joy

“You should have come earlier,” says Yalda, looking through Fatima’s white health card that details her monthly checkups. “You should take your folic acid regularly.” She pulls out a blood pressure cuff to take Fatima’s pressure, continuing to counsel the pregnant 17-year-old whose burka gently bulges around her midsection.

Yalda is a World Vision-trained midwife in Dinau village, outside Herat. She’s been on the job for just five months, but exudes the confidence of a seasoned health-care professional.

In contrast, Fatima’s young face is both frightened and shy. Behind her stands Hagar, 35, the first wife in this family. Hagar brought Fatima, the second wife, to the clinic specifically to see Yalda. Her husband—their husband—waits outside.

A mother of eight and a traditional birth attendant, Hagar knows the importance of prenatal care. She wants Yalda’s expertise for Fatima and her unborn child. “I wanted her heart checked and I wanted her to be examined,” says Hagar. “This is so important. If we don’t have midwives, the mother could die.”

Midwife-in-training Zahara looks forward to returning to her village to use her new skills.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]

Yalda is the daughter of educated Afghans. But by all rights, she shouldn’t be here, working outside her home without a burka. Her husband is from Kandahar, the present-day scene of fierce fighting between the Taliban and NATO coalition forces in southern Afghanistan. Six years ago, when she was first married, she was a virtual prisoner there, kept at home by her husband’s family.
“I couldn’t go outside. I couldn’t go shopping; I couldn’t go to the bazaar,” she says. “I explained to my husband that we should move. That life was too difficult.”

She credits her persistence (“I worked hard on him,”) and her husband’s temperament (“He has an enlightened mind”) with her success in persuading him to move to Herat. She was accepted into law school, but when she saw alarming reports of women dying in childbirth, she dropped law and enrolled in World Vision’s midwifery program.

Women Stand in the Gap

Since 2004, 82 midwives have graduated from World Vision’s Midwifery Training Program and are at work throughout western Afghanistan. Another 60 students are now in training. Dr. Ghulam Ahmed Hanifi, 40, directs the midwife program. At first, he says, it was difficult to convince village men to let the women come to Herat for training. Ghulam went to the village leaders with a choice—let women work or watch them continue to suffer. “When they saw that women die during birth,” he says, “they chose to let the women work.”

Ghulam selected the first class of midwives, but now they apply, he says. “They want to have jobs and an education.” Once in Herat, the women live together in a beautiful new dormitory, studying in a library with Internet access. Everything is paid for.

As part of their training, midwives care for premature infants in the World Vision-supported neonatal unit in Herat—the first in western Afghanistan.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]
After two years, graduates return to their villages trained in global health practices and with a new lease on life. “They feel like the best person in the village—the VIP,” says Ghulam. Their impact is both immediate and long-term in villages where male doctors are not permitted to examine women or assist in delivery. “The change will permeate her family, her community, and generations to come,” says Ghulam.

Yalda is part of the change, working alongside Dr. Malouk Seif, 35. He’s worked with midwives before, but none like Yalda. “She’s better than the others,” he says. “She has better knowledge. She can do examinations and prescribe medicine. We already have more patients.”

Malouk credits Yalda’s presence among several factors that have increased traffic to the clinic. There are also public-service announcements on radio and television created by nongovernmental organizations about three years ago, which have been effective in delaying pregnancy among young wives until it is safer for them. Education has also helped. “Going to school has kept girls from getting pregnant early on,” says Malouk.

He sees change inside his clinic—and out. “There are a lot of differences for girls and women,” he says. “Before, there was no school. Before, people didn’t allow women to work. Now they can.”

Hagar brings her husband's second wife, Fatima, for a pregnancy check-up. Fatima says that if she has a girl, she will send her to school and discourage her from marrying young.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]

Still, with continuing civil unrest, poverty, and a feeling of uncertainty about the future, Afghanistan teeters between possibility and utter despair. Malouk believes that women stand in the gap. “We’ve improved a little, but if we stop the momentum of girls going to school and women working,” he warns, “we will become poor and miserable. If women participate in their communities, it brings peace.”

Yalda worries about her country, that the Taliban might again take power. But it will not stop this determined young woman. If the Taliban comes back, she says, “I will work,” transferring to a private clinic in the village.

"If women participate in their communities, it brings peace."

“Afghanistan needs help,” says Malouk. “It’s like one of my patients. If we treat him but then stop his medicine, he will die. If you stop your support, Afghanistan will die.”

Sara on the Brink

At the burn unit in Herat, Sara awaits her skin graft. Her 3-year-old son, Ramin, plays the gracious host for his mother’s visitors. “Have a seat,” he instructs, patting the bed next to her blanket-covered legs. Ramin’s presence clearly brings his mother joy.

Sara awaits a skin graft at the Herat burn unit with her son, Ramin. She's fortunate80 percent of the women here die of their burns.
[(c) September 2006/Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision]

“I want a happy future for him,” she says. “I want him to grow big, go to school, and get an education.” Sixteen days after her self-immolation attempt, she seems to have a new lease on life. Her smile is a glimmer of hope amid the misery of the clinic. She’s even thinking of having another child—this time, a girl.

“If I have a daughter, I will try to make for her a good life,” she says.
A good life that includes education and a good job—things Sara dreamed of and was denied. Perhaps her children will realize those dreams in an Afghanistan that women help to change.

Kari Costanza is the information resources manager for World Vision and a contributing editor to World Vision magazine.
Mary Kate MacIsaac is the communications manager for World Vision in Afghanistan.

Get Involved

>> Pray for the continued progress of World Vision’s assistance to children and families in Afghanistan despite escalating violence. In the past year, four local World Vision workers were tragically killed, prompting some activities to be suspended.

The feature above was published in
World Vision MagazineSpring 2007 [pdf].

Other features from this issue include:

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