Girls in Afghanistan: seizing the day

We meet the students of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) – the country’s first boarding school for girls

The girls beam at the camera as any group of classmates might. The young women radiate confidence and youthful promise. Fifteen years ago, this scene of Afghan girls gathered in a courtyard, fresh from class, would have been unthinkable. Today, they are proud students at the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) – the country’s first boarding school for girls.

“My parents sent me to SOLA because they wanted me to be powerful and strong in life,” says 14-year-old Ayesha. “They also wanted me to get quality education in a safe place.”

Ayesha is a student at the all-girls school in Kabul. Set up by Shabana Basij-Rasikh, SOLA’s president, the school opened in 2008 with just four students. Last year saw 25 girls attend, and SOLA hopes to double that to 50 students in the coming academic year. Originally conceived as a two-year intensive programme to prepare girls for scholarships abroad, this year the school itself has gone up a grade, becoming SOLA High School, where a fresh intake will stay with SOLA for their entire secondary schooling. Competition is fierce, with 250 applicants expected for around 25 places.SOLA is making small inroads into the damage wreaked by Taliban rule, under which educating girls was illegal. Since the fall of the regime in 2001, school enrolment has leapt from fewer than 1 million pupils, to 8.3 million in 2013 – some 40 per cent of which are girls, according to UNICEF data. Progress at secondary level is less impressive, with 70 per cent of teenage girls absent from lower secondary school in 2014, says the UN. “Investing in a girl is like investing in a country"

For SOLA, educating girls is much more than literacy and exams – the country’s future is at stake. Women pass on the value of education to the next generation and, crucially, equal respect for men and women, says Basij-Rasikh. Her hope is to reach a point where opportunities for girls are accepted, not just tolerated.

“Investing in a girl is like investing in a country,” she observes. “Any generation coming after will always be more educated and will have more responsible citizens.”

SOLA settled on a boarding school – where students live, sleep and study – to tackle some of the barriers facing Afghanistan’s girls. It opens up opportunities for those from rural areas, where secondary schools are sorely lacking, with pupils coming from 14 of the 34 provinces. Critically, the model also buys back hours in the day for girls’ development that would otherwise be lost to household chores that their brothers typically escape, according to Basij-Rasikh.

As a high school, SOLA will teach a mix of the Afghan curriculum and its own courses in English, maths and science to international baccalaureate standard, a global accreditation. SOLA also advocates teaching students to think independently, the leadership part of SOLA’s mission; after decades of war, the country needs creative Afghans to come up with solutions to the country’s plethora of problems. “How useful can young Afghan girls and boys be to our society if they don’t have critical thinking skills?” says Basij-Rasikh. “If a human being isn’t able to think independently, how can we consider them to be free?"

The admissions process handpicks smart and socially aware students. Applicants are asked to write about a person they admire and how that influences their goals. They could do worse than pick Basij-Rasikh, 25, who, as a young girl under Taliban rule, dressed as a boy to accompany her older sister on their perilous journey to one of Kabul’s secret schools. Basij-Rasikh credits her family for their determination she should attend school. Family is a crucial factor, she says. SOLA requires girls and families to subscribe to an honour code, which includes a commitment to create a home life free from gender discrimination.

“SOLA taught me the courage to stand up for myself and defend women’s rights. It connected me to a bigger world”Many families are already on board, despite the danger this poses. “SOLA was one of the most extraordinary things I experienced and of course people had to talk about it,” notes Asma, who was 12 when she attended SOLA. “My mother, who is educated, did what she could to get all her five daughters an education, disregarding the threats she received.”

“Because I chose my education over marriage, I put myself and my family in danger. My family is still being threatened by anti-education people,” adds Kamila, a former pupil. “But SOLA taught me the courage to stand up for myself and defend women’s rights. It connected me to a bigger world.”

Basij-Rasikh cites the bravery of men who keep their daughters and sisters in school, often the first in their families to do so.

“Those fathers deserve recognition, because they can become role models for other men,” she says. Getting men involved in the conversation is vital because educated girls are Afghanistan’s future wives, mothers and leaders, she adds: “The direct benefit is for girls, but the indirect benefit is enormous.”

SOLA’s education is not cheap. It costs $10,000 a year for each girl, but all students are on full scholarships funded by donors such as the US-based Bezos Family Foundation. Since 2008, students have received more than $9m in scholarships, with its 45 alumni studying in six countries. Long-term, the school hopes to raise enough for its $2m annual operating costs, $7m to kickstart an endowment fund, and $10m to build its own campus. The goal is to build up to enrol 50 new students each year, up to 340 girls by 2022.

Vast challenges remain. The country faces a critical shortage of teachers, especially female tutors, as a result of the conflict’s brain drain – the largest impediment to girls’ education, says Basij-Rasikh. Of the roughly 170,000 teachers in the country, only a third are women and few of them teach in rural schools. To compound problems, teacher quality is poor: more than 70 per cent are not up to scratch.

“I used to attend one of Afghanistan’s public schools. The teachers there didn’t teach their subject – a language teacher would teach physics, for example,” says Farida, a former student. If not for SOLA, opportunities for intelligent girls such as Farida could go to waste. “In the future I want to be a scientist,” she adds. “I am also working hard to be the first female president of Afghanistan.”

Photo credit: School of Leadership, Afghanistan