Advance Peace With Education in Afghanistan
"The people of this country know the value of education. I just had to assure them of their investment."
These were the words of Assadullah Kohistani, principal of the Ghulam Haider Khan High School for boys in Kabul, a school of some 9,000 students thirsty for a future different from the past three decades of violence in Afghanistan, as reported in a beautiful essay by Afghan journalist Mujib Mashal for Al Jazeera here.
The 'education obsession' espoused by Afghans is inescapable to anyone who visits Afghanistan. The foremost issue on the minds of many Afghans is their own education or their children's. In a country that is mostly young-- 43.6% of the population is under 14 years of age and the median age is 18-- this embracing of education gives reason to hope that Afghanistan's upcoming generation may do things differently. The correlation between illiteracy, fundamentalism, poverty and conflict has not been lost on Afghans, and their hunch is confirmed by mounds of empirical data that point to a strong link between peace and quality education.
This was part of my message at a series of talks last week in Calgary, and again today in Ottawa as I gave witness testimony to the Canadian Senate's Human Rights Committee, as it considers how Canada might best serve advancing the rights of Afghan women, post-2011. The transcripts from these sessions will be available over the next few weeks on the Senate's website, as well as webcasts, but in the meantime, here is my opening statement from this afternoon:
Dear Committee Members,
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today and to share my perspectives on Canada’s continued role in Afghanistan. I’m relieved that a training mission will continue post-2011 and hopeful that aid commitments will be sustained to at least existing levels.
I’ve closely followed the story of Afghan women since 1996 and over the last decade of my involvement in gender and development work in Afghanistan, and coming up to 20 visits to the country, I’ve learned a few lessons, which I’d like to share with you.
The first is that the path to women’s empowerment is through social development, even what you might call traditional development areas, most important of which is education and next is economic development. Programs and projects that have broadly defined goals of ‘gender equality’ and vaguely articulated strategies such as “awareness raising on gender”, “gender mainstreaming”, or “workshops promoting women’s rights” are not going to go very far when more than three quarters of Afghan women can’t read or write yet. One must first start with the basics.
Literacy must be the foundation for building a society where women can be empowered. Afghan women often use blindness as a metaphor for illiteracy. Its crippling, silencing and keeps women out of public life. Eradicating illiteracy is the most radically empowering change that can take place towards promoting women’s rights, but supporting literacy projects is gender equality programming in disguise. Literacy initiatives are generally received passively by conservative forces in the country, for instance, as opposed to projects with titles that include the words “women’s rights” or “gender”.
Strengthening basic education, for men and women, is a way of tricking people into recognizing women’s potential, without calling it women’s rights, which can immediately alienate some religious leaders and the many close-minded, uneducated men whom the average Afghan woman contends with.
Our science education specialist, Marianne O’Grady, was once demonstrating anatomy models to male teachers in a remote area of Afghanistan. When she finished showing each part of the brain, she put the brain model away. One of the men said, “Now can you show us the female brain?”
Marianne explained that men and women have the same sized brains. The men were shocked and one man exclaimed with horror that he would never again hit his wife on the neck because now he knew that it could damage her cerebellum. So science education can really be women’s rights education, without seeming so pugnacious or combative.
The greatest investment that can be made in women’s rights is for Canada to take a robust role in funding and coordinating education development in Afghanistan, including using its trusted position to raise the capacity to deliver education services at the Afghan Ministry of Education and address some of the most painfully slow areas of progress, such as textbook production and distribution, training teachers, resourcing schools with science labs and books, supporting book development and children’s literature (of which there is almost none in Afghanistan), and expanding secondary education.
When enrollment spiked in 2002 when schools reopened after the Taliban, that started a massive wave of those kids who were in grade 1 in 2002 moving through the system. They are now entering grade 8 and if more secondary schools, as well as colleges, vocational training centres, and university spots are not made available for them, they may present a destabilizing factor soon.
As an overall approach, investing in human capital will pay the greatest dividends, whether that is training civil servants, nurses, teachers, strengthening secondary education, or building vocational centres. Orienting aid towards people instead of buildings, roads or infrastructure will mean those people you invest in can later build their buildings, roads and infrastructure. So it’s more cost-effective in the long road, and is not only an aid and development contribution, but contributes to security over the long run. Education is fundamentally about peacebuilding, and there is ample evidence of links between high quality education systems and high literacy rates, and peace.
Men must also be included too as beneficiaries and stakeholders in women’s rights. When we opened a women’s literacy class, we later opened a men’s literacy class in the same rural village after the men petitioned us for this. This resulted in reinforcement of the women’s access to education because the men were also receiving something, but also because literate, educated men are good for women’s rights. Excluding men breeds distrust on the part of men. Besides, men need to change behaviour and attitudes as much as women do, for social transformation to occur. Please advocate for men to be included in gender-focused policy in aid to Afghanistan.
On this point, I hope Canada will put literacy education front and centre of its Afghan policy and army training efforts. Literacy is a critical part of police professionalization, both in giving the practical skills necessary to do good police work, but also in getting police officers to think of themselves as professional people whose role is to serve and protect citizens. A policeman who takes himself seriously is more likely to respond in a sensitive and serious manner with a woman coming forward with, say, a domestic abuse complaint to a police station.
You have probably also heard that along with the Afghan Government, the NGO sector in Afghanistan has its fair share of corruption. This is in part true, though its important not to generalize. To counter corruption in the NGO sector, invest in capacity building for accountability in both the Afghan Government and in international and national NGOs; and innovate in the development of stronger accountability mechanisms that produce cost efficiency, transparency and results, but keep heavy bureaucratic procedures limited.
Hire Canadian civil servants working on the Afghanistan file who truly know Afghanistan and will be able to start recognizing some of the more common corrupt practices, as opposed to bureaucrats who are moved from country file to country file, unable to build sustained experience in a single country or at least the region.
Accountability for results can also be achieved through aid delivery mechanisms that allow for small projects to be supported by Canadian dollars. In my years witnessing both stunning successes and appalling failures in development, a common theme has been that multimillion dollar projects have too many layers often in the form of too much sub-contracting, inadequate safeguards against waste and corruption, and are unwieldy to implement. But small is often beautiful. I’ve seen projects with budgets of less than $50,000 show greater results than similar projects budgeted at $1 million or more.
Finally, Canadian investments in democracy in Afghanistan will help entrench women’s rights. Canada is in a good position to provide both technical assistance to the machinery of democracy such as elections support, as well as support the building of democratic culture, such as civics education for men and women.
- Lauryn Oates, Projects Director - Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan
November 22, 2010