Teacher Helps Girls Realize their Dreams with Gender Equality Grant

June 1, 2010

Mazar-i-Sharif is the site of the magnificent turquoise-tiled mosque that dates back a millennium. In a land where deep religious and ethnic divides persist, the mosque is a safe and neutral space that serves as a place of worship for both Sunni and Shiite.

In this timeless city, Hamida,* a high school teacher, is also providing a safe space and sparking hope for Mazar’s young women. Even today, women largely remain subject to draconian laws and narrow cultural mores which restrict them from becoming full and vocal members of Afghan society.

Last October, Hamida * learned about the American Ambassador’s Small Grants Program to Support Gender Equality (ASGP) in Afghanistan and decided to establish an association for the development of women’s skills in the surrounding Mazar-i-Sharif area. She called it the Danish Association; “danish” means “knowledge” in Dari.

Hamida * is fostering long-term solutions to advance development in Afghanistan, by providing opportunities to young women. Her efforts to build their skills and to help further their education are expanding young Afghan women’s world beyond the confines of home and llimited job opportunities.

The head of Danish explains that “Women have been subject to violence and often deprived of education during the last three decades of war. I decided to assist young women because they make up half of the population and their role is crucial to their societies as well as their families.” She herself finished high school in Paghman district in Kabul in 1987 and afterwards attended university also in Kabul where she studied literature and linguistics. But insecurity and civil war interrupted her studies until she relocated to northern Afghanistan and obtained her degree from Balkh University.

The Ambassador’s Program began supporting Danish Association on February 1, 2010. The Association’s grant is expected to contribute to its activities until this autumn. The Association provides English language classes, computer training, and preparation for university placement tests for young women. Because of the remoteness of its location, the Association is one of the few of its kind to offer such services for young women in the area, although there is a nearby training center for women which teaches painting and beading. That center and its activities are also funded by the ASGP.

“This fund represents the United States’ people’s longstanding dedication to advancing the cause of Afghan women,” said Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer. “During this visit to Afghanistan I had the opportunity to engage with leaders of Afghan NGOs who selflessly strive to give literacy, justice, economic opportunity, and health to their fellow citizens. Supporting these crucial efforts through the Ambassador’s Grants Program is an expression of our deepest admiration and commitment to the Afghan people.”

Twenty-one year old Shanaz*, who takes English courses at Danish to prepare for her university entrance exam, learned about the center from a classmate. She says she came in one day on a trial basis to investigate the quality of teaching. “I discovered that the teaching method is good and I can learn a lot from it. So, I decided to come here regularly.” She added, “Whether you’re a man or a woman, you have certain responsibilities. As an Afghan girl, I have a lot of responsibilities towards my society and my people. I must try to gain knowledge which I can use to serve my people.”

Because Danish’s founder teaches high school locally, she encourages her students to take advantage of the equipment and classes at the Association. According to one of her 16 year old students, Sadya*, financial restrictions would have kept her from learning computer skills and improving her English had the Association not opened. “We could hardly believe a place with such facilities and equipment was made available to us,” said Sadya*. “We live in a modern age and English is an international language. It’s hardly possible to find good jobs without knowing English or computer skills and I want to study either medicine or law to serve my country as a doctor or attorney general.”

The Ambassador’s Small Grants Program to support Gender Equality in Afghanistan is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and was launched in June 2009 jointly with Afghanistan’s Acting Minister of Women’s Affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar. The 28-month program provides institutional capacity development and advocacy training along with technical assistance through grants to women-focused Afghan organizations. For the Danish Association, assistance from ASGP has meant financing and equipment to improve the quality of its training and facilities. ASGP is working to improve the status and quality of life of Afghan women and girls by strengthening civil society organizations that address women’s needs in education, healthcare, skills training, economic opportunities, counseling on family issues, and public advocacy.

Like the mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif which bridges ethnic and religious divides, the Danish Association’s activities aims to span the educational and skills divide that keep women from being full participants in Afghan society. In this, the ASGP is significant to the Danish Associations aims. “ASGP assisted us to expand our training facility,” said Hamida.* “We strive to fulfill the commitment we made to those who support us.”

*The names of the women portrayed in this article are fictional to ensure the security of those quoted.

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