Afghan female educator overcomes obstacles to improve reading curriculum

By Natalie Lovenburg and Ali Dariosh Shirzad

March 6, 2017

Hamida Azami is an educator whose life has been defined by one underlying goal: To empower Afghan students to get an education.

When her conservative community’s traditions held back women, she struggled against convention and gained an education. Even when the Taliban controlled her community, she set up a clandestine school in her home to give children—particularly girls—an opportunity to learn.

Azami serves as a curriculum expert for the Ministry of Education in Kabul, partnering with an early grade reading initiative called the Afghan Children Read project.

Those early lessons have served her well. Today, Azami serves as a curriculum expert for the Ministry of Education in Kabul, partnering with an early grade reading initiative called the Afghan Children Read project.

Funded the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International, the project works to ensure quality education service delivery through an evidence-based early grade reading program for grades one to three students in formal and Community Based Education schools.

By collaborating with partners like Azami, the project is building the Ministry’s capacity and working to pilot innovative approaches to teach reading.

Though Azami is now a national education leader, she began her life and career with few resources, but great determination, in Panjsher province, a remote region nestled between the Hindu Kush Mountains in northeastern Afghanistan.

This socially and culturally conservative area of the country presents many obstacles that restrict students’ access to education–especially for Afghan women and girls. Indeed, her farming father and brothers disapproved of her pursing her education, especially outside of the province and away from the family. Fortunately, she prevailed and pursued an education.

An education champion despite Taliban rule

Compounding the socially restrictive norms of the region was the Taliban rule, which devastated Panjsher’s education system, destroyed schools and allowed followers to attack educators and students. Under the insurgency, women were stripped of all human rights–working outside of the home and gaining an education were strictly banned. Mobility was limited and voices were silenced.

But this did not stop Azami, who taught at a local school, despite its lack of many resources.

“In the early years of the conflict, I started teaching in a primary school that didn’t have chalk to write on a board or even a roof to cover the classroom building,” she says.

When the Taliban controlled her district and restricted education, she decided to take action. She started and managed a small school in her home to teach children, despite the risks to her own safety.

Azami says this period of conflict was a pivotal time for her—cementing her dreams and dedication to providing education for all Afghan children.

“Remembering the difficult times during the insurgents’ control in Panjsher when girls and boys were so sophisticated and excited to learn but were not allowed to receive an education is what inspired me to keep going, to follow my dreams of higher education and to be an education advocate,” she says.

The Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, and since then the group’s control of areas in the country has varied, with ongoing concerns for women and girls’ access to education.

But despite the challenges of conflict, crisis and restrictive social norms and cultural barriers in Afghanistan, Azami’s passion for education has propelled positive change within her own vulnerable community.

New learning opportunities for female Afghan educators

The Afghan Children Read project will improve the reading skills of more than 450,000 children and support approximately 10,000 teachers.

During the last 10 years, reconstruction of the education infrastructure and access to education has significantly improved, opening the door for female educators like Azami, who followed her passion of pursuing a Master’s degree in Education in Kabul province.

Now a curriculum expert for the Ministry of Education, Azami is a key partner of the Afghan Children Read project. In December 2016, she joined 26 of Afghanistan’s top regional experts in teacher education to participate in a real classroom practicum experience with students in first and second grades, with the support of Afghan Children Read.

The Master Trainers engaged in a two-day practicum with two schools in Kabul. The teachers worked in the classrooms in the morning and then attended a reflection session in the afternoon, allowing teachers to give feedback on new learnings and identify areas that need improvement in the manuals and training.

This in-classroom experience is an essential component of the trainings, explains Fathi El-Ashry, Creative’s Senior Associate in Instructional Systems.

“The practicums were implemented with the firm belief that knowledge will only increase when teachers have the opportunity to practice the theories in classrooms,” says El-Ashry.

For Azami and her female colleagues, these trainings meant a chance to sharpen their skills and become more effective education advocates for Afghan children.

“There are lack of opportunities for women educators to improve their teaching and management skills in my country. But in the last six months through the project, I’ve worked with seven Core Trainers and learned how to develop teacher training manual and student textbooks in the local Pashto and Dari languages,” says Azami, who aspires to pursue a doctorate in education, to train more professional teachers and to continue to strengthen Afghanistan’s educational system.

As she works to improve early grade reading and teacher training, Azami is optimistic about the future of the project and the future of education in her country.

“Afghan Children Read is one of the most fundamental and sustainable education projects I’ve ever be a part of in my professional careers,” she says. “I’ve witnessed a tremendous impact on the thousands of recently trained teachers who now have new teaching tools, methods and approaches in empowering students to learn and gain reading skills.”

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