By: Sylvia Woodbury — Correspondent
Covid-19 has hit the world hard and endangered basic human rights globally. In developing countries like Afghanistan, it has induced higher stakes for girls and women during the pandemic, especially pertaining to education.
Razia’s Ray of Hope is a nonprofit organization that funds the Zabuli Education Center and the Razia Jan Institute. These schools educate girls in a country where the average age of marriage for girls is fifteen to sixteen.
Kate Harrigan, the Director of Development for the organization, has been able to give us an inside view on how the pandemic has affected Afghanistan and a girl’s education there, especially for the Zabuli Education Center and the Razia Jan Institute. “The school year in Afghanistan is March to December, so we unfortunately never opened the school year,” said Harrigan.
“We really quickly tried to pivot to remote learning, but remote learning in Afghanistan, and especially in our community [Deh’Subz, Afghanistan] is really different than you can imagine,” said Harrigan.
“We were able to get the [fourth grade and older students] with much more success set up with some remote learning curriculum—books, resources—but it was really self-directed. Our youngest students were not able to get a lot of structure,” Harrigan added.
While the team behind the school tirelessly worked to support the students and teachers during that time, they still faced problems. “[Afghanistan] largely shut down just like we did. We actually had to get very creative about how to get our books and supplies to the students because there were curfews, the government was very strongly enforcing that,” Harrigan said.
Because of limited resources and training, an estimated third of Afghanistan’s population has been infected with COVID-19, according to the nation’s minister of health Ahmad Jawad Osmani. However, the Deh’Subz district is doing well due to the changes made by the community.
“We’re thankful that it didn’t seem to hit our community very hard. When we got the okay from the government to open up in August, we did everything that we’ve been learning to do here,” said Harrigan.
Harrigan says class sizes have been reduced and everyone goes in half days instead of full days. “So, it’s wearing masks, we’ve installed a bunch of handwashing stations, [we’ve been] really working with especially the younger kids about hygiene and washing their hands, and we actually do temperature checks,” added Harrigan.
Afghanistan is facing an education crisis where students—especially women—may not return to school after closures in March. Human rights injustices are at an increased risk during the pandemic, especially for women and children, who face increased exploitation at home and less access to reliable services from schools.
“That was honestly one of the biggest fears that we had,” said Harrigan. She says school is a safe place for many of our students. “We worry, separate from COVID, about losing our students to early marriage, to just the cultural barriers that historically many Afghan families have just—if they have allowed their daughters to go to school, they’ve removed them at a certain point [to help with family tasks and needs],” Harrigan added.
“International aid organizations around the world have the same concerns, which is girls are not in school during this time, there’s economic issues and real challenges that families are facing,” Harrigan said. She says marrying sometimes is seen as a way to solve some of those economic issues, and that is why they are really worried.
Though the Zabuli Education Center and Razia Jan Institute have not lost many students, other schools in Afghanistan do not have the same level of funding or resources that the ZEC/RJI do. “I think we’re an outlier. I will say, I think that when you look at other research on this issue, a lot of countries and a lot of schools don’t have the story that I’m telling. We’re a private school, most schools are obviously public,” said Harrigan.
“Many schools in Afghanistan don’t have bathrooms for girls, most don’t have heat, and we have all of those things. I think that the students who go to our school are experiencing something very different than the typical Afghan child, boy or girl,” added Harrigan.
For Afghanistan and many other countries, a world where many girls and women are contained at home with less access to help is a dangerous one. According to unwomen.org, countries such as France and Argentina have had 25% to 30% increases in domestic violence, and the numbers have increased in the US, Canada, and the UK as well.
Many countries worry that restricted movement and emergency measures will be misused in an attempt to degrade women’s and human rights. With International Human Rights Day on December 10th, recognizing these problems increases awareness and raises the probability for solutions.
Despite the worries surrounding the pandemic, those working at the Zabuli Education Center and RJI institute are remaining hopeful. “We’re hoping to have the graduation actually in March, and [it] would still be a much shorter school year, but it would be enough for them to pass the exams,” said Harrigan.
Harrigan says Razia Jan Institute students are also back in the practicum, where they’re now back in clinics and hospitals, working on fulfilling the requirements to become a certified midwife.
The situation in Afghanistan, and in many countries globally, is precarious. But the Razia’s Ray of Hope community shares an important message to not give up hope in times of crisis—and not just to give up hope, but work even harder to combat the pre-existing fragilities in our societies. As the UN stated on their front page, now is the time to “build back the better”.
The ZEC/RJI have taken enormous steps to follow this mantra; they are determined to help create a new generation of educated Afghan girls. “One of the things that we have always really been very happy to see is not that we’re all of the sudden eliminating all child marriages, but we’ve started to see girls either marrying later and/or the family allows her to stay and finish school. We want to keep pushing the age of marriage into their twenties and/or when they want to marry,” Harrigan said.
You can support them by donating to raziasrayofhope.org