The Afghan mother looked her Canadian visitor in the eye. "You can move around, come here and see us," she said. "I am also a human, why shouldn't I be able to do these things? When I see an educated woman like you, I think: I want to be that too."
Around the room, other women nodded. For months they'd come to that small house in Bagrami, Afghanistan, to learn to finally read. That day they shared their scholarly successes -- unthinkable accomplishments when the Taliban ruled their land. As the Canadian visitor, Lauryn Oates, listened to dreams realized through education, she thought of a UNICEF survey she'd helped conduct a few years earlier. One thousand Afghan women, aged 15 to 24, were asked to read a sentence aloud. Although they all had a primary school education, an astonishing 71 per cent could not the read simple words.
On Tuesday, March 18, the last Canadian troops returned home from that country -- 12 years after they first arrived. In that time, with the support of nations like Canada, Afghan women have achieved some remarkable successes, including dramatically reduced infant mortality rates and increased presence in political life. Yet, despite the triumphs shared between those four walls in Bagrami, educating the illiterate, especially girls, remains a huge challenge in Afghanistan.
Since 2006, Canada alone has pumped more than $180 million into education in Afghanistan, according to the Canadian Foreign Affairs project browser. Thousands of schools have been rebuilt or rehabilitated by western nations. Afghan government statistics show more than two million girls are reportedly now enrolled in school -- up from just 5000 in 2001.
So why is it that, despite this decade of massive investment, the literacy rate for women is still only 22 per cent according to UNICEF?
It's the same problem we've seen so many other places: failing to realize that building a school is not the same thing as providing an education.
As Program Director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan -- a Canadian volunteer organization supporting education and rights for Afghan women -- Oates has spent more than a decade working with Afghan women. She said it's impossible to overstate the improvement in the lives of women there.
The maternal mortality rate has fallen to 460 mothers' deaths per 100,000 births in 2013 from 2,200 mothers' deaths in 2001.
When the first post-Taliban Afghan Parliament opened in 2005 with 68 women legislators, male parliamentarians were "up in arms." They refused to work with women in their midst. "That's completely changed now," Oates said.
"Unlike before, now you see women everywhere: on billboards, on TV, in parliament," said Oates.
There is one key to securing these gains, and improving on them: education. The success of a family -- their health, education and income -- can be predicted by the education level of mother.
However, Oates told us that, in a rush to show results, donor nations like Canada chose quantity over quality. Through private contractors and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, western governments erected as many school buildings as quickly as they could. They failed to plan where the teachers or school supplies would come from, or how schools would be maintained.
A UNESCO report in 2011 found that, of 5,000 schools built or rehabilitated since 2003, 50 per cent were unusable.
"I've seen schools built five years ago that look like they were built fifty years ago, with mould on the walls and broken light fixtures hanging from the ceilings," Oates said.
In some cases, the schools were built too far from communities, making them inaccessible for Afghan girls whose only means of transportation is on foot.
A 2011 report on girls' education by CARE, Oxfam and Afghan non-governmental organizations found a serious teacher shortfall--especially women teachers. Oates told us the teacher training schools are turning out unqualified teachers. "No one knows what's going on in the teachers' colleges," said Oates.
Canada still funds a number of Afghan education initiatives, but most are set to expire within the next two years. We must make a long-term commitment to funding Afghan girls' education. Canada must also ensure that investment is used wisely.
Are we just slapping up more schools, or are we creating sustainable institutions with the supplies, qualified teachers, and community support they need to survive? The U.S. government development agency USAID and other organizations have in the past few years raised the alarm about corruption in the Afghan Ministry of Education. We need a strong monitoring system to ensure our investments in schools and teacher colleges deliver results.
Like people everywhere, the women of Afghanistan have dreams. The key to realizing them is education. As long as those dreams remain unfulfilled, our duty in Afghanistan remains equally unfulfilled.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.
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