Shirin Sahani (Afghanistan)

Shirin Sahani (Omid Learning Center, Afghanistan): Shirin described herself as a “cultural nomad,” having been born in India and brought up in Iran, as well as a consummate traveler. Before pursuing a graduate degree, Shirin developed and implemented marketing communications strategies for companies in the technology, industrial and medical markets. After this exposure to the corporate sector, Shirin took her skills to the international arena, more specifically civil society organizations working on women’s social and political development in the Middle East and Asia. At the time of her fellowship, Shirin was pursuing a graduate degree at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

The Bumpy Road to Girl’s Education

02 Aug

I recently got back from visiting the girl’s school in Godah. It was a back-breaking, rock-riddled, dusty and treacherous three-hour ride. There is no paved road to Godah so we went off-roading on a narrow, dusty lane up and down mountains in a beat-up car with a wizened driver, both of whom had seen better days.
The destination, however, made the trek completely worthwhile. Godah is a lush village nestled between mountains and surrounded by a lovely river. Upon our arrival to the village, we were greeted with freshly baked bread and then made our way to the school.

The school is located on a flat plain overlooking a common area and local orchards and you can hear the water running in a nearby stream. The staff and students were expecting us and had put up the tents we had sent to replace those destroyed by the fire. Since it was quite late in the day and starting to get hot, we visited each class briefly and decided to meet the students the next day. We met with the teachers and principal to complete the school assessment and discuss their needs. After lunch at the principal’s house, Sadiqa and I spent the rest of the day drawing rows on the plastic floor covering and assembling chairs into rows to encourage students to sit in an orderly fashion. The day had gone well and I was excited about tomorrow.

I should have known better and heeded my own oft-repeated advice on managing expectations. Sadiqa and I discovered the next morning that all our hard work trying to assemble the chairs into rows was for nought. The students had reassembled the chairs to their liking and convenience. We succeeded in getting the older classes to adjust to the concept of sitting within their row on the floor and tried to instill in them the concept of ownership for their particular row but it was still a challenge.

The girls are shy and prefer to sit huddled next to each other and speak all at once. It’s disconcerting and impossible to get a straight answer when you have twenty or thirty students fidgeting and the same number of voices yelling at the same time. You could tell the students were anxious to please and show their best behavior but they have no idea what is expected of them. Our attempts at creating discipline were completely foreign to them.

We fought the same battle with the school staff when we expressed our displeasure at the lack of discipline and attendance standards within the school. The attendance records are impossible to track as the teachers tend to mark everyone present. Their reasoning is that the absence is usually not the student’s fault stemming from additional household chores due to parental illness or guests who come and tend to stay for a month. As a result, the teachers feel guilty penalizing the girls and will tend to mark them present.

Sadiqa and I explained that the attendance record is not a measure of reprimanding the student but discovering means to assist the students in continuing their education. Accurate attendance is critical as it is one of the few educational indicators we have to monitor the students.

The teachers listened but I could sense their resentment. Their idea of discipline and educational standards are completely different than what we are accustomed to and they argued that it was not fair of us to expect them to perform to international standards. However, Sadiqa and I felt that as teachers they need to be more proactive in instilling discipline in their classrooms and for tracking their students.

The teacher’s agreed to do a better job of keeping attendance and of getting students to sit in rows. However, this doesn’t really address the problem of their lack of initiative. Perhaps I’m too ambitious to expect more of them as the Godah school for girls is the first in over 80 years.

As I drove back, I couldn’t help but compare the drive to my experience working on girl’s education. The end destination makes the trip worthwhile but getting there is no easy task and is riddled with challenges. Community approval, the lack of qualified teachers and equipment, funding, security, registration bureaucracy, these are just some of the struggles Sadiqa and I have had to overcome.

It is easy to get discouraged but then you go back to the big picture. Can we afford to give up on girl’s education in Godah? The answer is clearly no. If this project fails then so will any hope for female education in a province where girls are being educated for the first time. Failure is not an option here and so we go back to working on building the capacity of the teachers and getting more qualified teachers for Godah.

Our hope is that by getting the school registered and by constructing a building we can avail ourselves of a pool of better and more qualified teachers. The promise of accommodation and government salaries are always draws for teachers and hopefully we can attract some female teachers who would be better equipped to understand and motivate the girls. It’s a lengthy process but you have only to look at the hopeful and beautiful faces of the girls and see the strides that Sadiqa has made to realize that the long and arduous journey is worth it.

Posted By Shirin Sahani (Afghanistan)

Posted Aug 2nd, 2005

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