Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (Refugee women) - The difficulty of educating Leyla
Refugees (100, II - 1995)
In the struggle to educate Afghan refugee women and girls, some approaches work better than others. And the result remains unacceptable: most never attend school.
By Rupert Colville
Of the more than 70,000 Afghan children currently receiving UNHCR-funded education in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, over 90 percent are boys.
This striking disparity has been sharply criticized by some observers, who accuse UNHCR - along with other organizations - of failing to uphold the human rights standards of the United Nations. UNHCR staff respond that in the face of overwhelming cultural obstacles, they are doing the best they can.
"The Afghan girls represent the extreme end of the spectrum," says UNHCR Senior Education Officer Margaret Sinclair, who was based in Pakistan for several years. "In Africa, for example, 40 percent of children receiving primary education are girls. But almost all the refugees in Pakistan were rural Pushtuns from eastern Afghanistan, the most conservative of the Afghan social and ethnic groups."
Rural Pushtun girls are often betrothed, and segregated from males outside the family, at the age of eight or nine. As they approach puberty, they stay increasingly within high-walled family compounds. Schooling for older girls is perceived as a threat to the all-important family honour. It is also stigmatized through association with the former communist regime in Afghanistan, which actively (and quite successfully) promoted education for girls.
If any attempt to educate Afghan girls is to succeed, the teachers must be Pushtun-speaking women. A number of NGOs managed to recruit suitable Afghan women - but immediately ran into another cultural brick wall. Educated Afghan women tended to live in cities, whereas many refugee camps are extremely remote. Women teachers who stayed away overnight were often threatened.
Such threats were aimed not only at teachers but also at women involved in income-generation projects and other forms of vocational training run by NGOs. One woman received a series of threats, including an envelope containing bullets destined - according to an accompanying letter - for the men in her family if she persisted in her dishonourable ways. A handicraft centre was burned down after a group of refugee women were seen receiving a donation there. In Peshawar, posters regularly appeared threatening Afghan women who worked for Western aid agencies.
Among the refugees, the contrast between urban and rural culture was stark: a much higher proportion of the Kabul residents, who began ariving in late 1992, sent their daughters to school than among the earlier, mainly rural caseload, "We did less for the urban girls than for the rural ones," says Sinclair. "Yet with the urban children we got 50-50 male-female attendance."
In the struggle to educate Afghan girls, some approaches have worked better than others. For example, men often allow their wives and daughters to receive training in "female skills." Courses in embroidery and tailoring have frequently been oversubscribed. However, one such course ran into trouble when a mullah walked in and saw a blackboard with numbers on it (the instructor had been explaining how to use a tape-measure). Married couples have been recruited for overnight stays in remote areas. Some religious leaders have begun literacy courses for women." Over a period of time," says Sinclair, "the culture has softened as people see that you don't suffer if your eight-year-old daughter went to school or your wife took an embroidery course."
Margaret Sinclair rejects the accusation that not enough was done in Pakistan. "We provided all-girls schools with female teachers. We provided free uniforms, shawls and school books. We accepted smaller class sizes for girls schools than for boys." In addition, Sinclair believes that women's literacy programmes will help stimulate education for future generations of Afghan girls. "In fact," she adds, "UNHCR did everything except point a gun at the refugees' heads and say 'Send your daughters to school.'"
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (1995)