Zuhra Abhar, after working for almost a year as Barakat’s Overseas Programs Director in Afghanistan recently returned to the U.S. for a brief visit. She oversees all of Barakat’s five programs in Afghanistan, keeping track of teachers, families, staff, and students.
One of Abhar’s most challenging tasks is dealing with cultural prejudice against keeping girls in Barakat schools. She related to us that “When girls get to 12 or 13 . . . parents pull them out of school. Because there’s a lack of female teachers, when the girls are getting older the parents don’t feel comfortable sending their teenage daughter to school with a male teacher.”
She added that the unstable security situation in Afghanistan is also a factor in parents keeping their daughters home. Scared by recent schoolgirl poisonings and the dangers of even walking to school, parents often keep their children home to keep them safe.
There is, however, a break in the clouds. Since her installment as the Overseas Program Director, Abhar has seen tremendous improvement in families’ willingness to send their children to school. “It’s amazing to see the changes from last year,” she said, smiling. “I think talking to the parents and letting them know the importance of education has been very successful.”
Barakat’s Afghanistan staff go directly to parents to try to persuade them of the importance and benefits of educating their daughters; for example, being able to read a sign at the doctor’s office. They also reassure parents that their daughters will have female teachers and female classmates. Reflecting on the difficulty of the job, Abhar ruefully admitted “It’s not easy.”
Because of the religious social norms in Afghanistan requiring males and females be separated in public, one of Abhar’s goals is to hire more female teachers for girls’ classes, particularly for the higher grades. She also wants to improve teacher education; most teachers have only graduated from high school or have a two-year degree. In the future, Abhar wants to develop teaching workshops to ensure that the teachers have a good understanding of teaching methods, and of their students. “The teachers need to be more trained . . . before they go and develop their curriculum,” she said. Currently, teachers are trained for three to five days every three years, when the Ministry of Education issues a new curriculum.
Abhar has a personal understanding of the need for female education in Afghanistan; until she was sixteen she lived there under a regime that did not allow her to go to school. She then moved to the United States with her family. “I wanted to take my experience [in the States] and go back and help,” she explained, “especially the girls and women. I can put myself in their position because I was once there—I couldn’t go to school. I know how difficult it is for them right now not to have an education.”
Abhar has translated her passion and experience to success. She has helped facilitate Human Rights Workshops, for which she has developed a successful handbook. Subsequently, the dropout of Barakat students, particularly girls, has decreased significantly, and the program has gained a few female teachers. The curriculum is being sharpened to focus on science, math, computer studies, and English, to prepare students for high school and even university. “It’s not only about education,” Abhar proudly said. “Barakat is providing hope for the girls and women, as well as fo their families and the country.”