Afghanistan: Giving girls an education
by Envoy Elizabeth Hayward
I was shopping for something with which to cover my head. A woman watching me said, ‘That’s a good idea; I think I’ll get one too. I need something to keep the wind out.’
It seemed too dramatic to say I was buying a head covering because I was going to Afghanistan. In the blustery English town of Northampton, Afghanistan seemed far away and unreal.
A young Afghan boy celebrates the arrival of new supplies at the recently
refurbished school with Major Ivor Telfer, a UK Salvation Army
officer in charge of the Army's Afghanistan project
I thought about the unknown woman in the department store when I stood, head covered, in a small, dark and very cold classroom in Buthaq Village, some 12 kilometres south of Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. She would have been amazed.
The weather was sunny but bitingly cold. Dust clouded the atmosphere and the adobe buildings of the village were a colourless grey. The girls’ primary school is normally closed for holiday during the worst of the winter, but it is a long time since things have been normal in Buthaq. The Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime had prevented girls from being educated in Afghanistan and stopped women working too.
Now the Taliban are no longer in power there is a great deal of catching up to be done. The windows of the classroom had been boarded up so that the girls who were grasping hold of a newly-available education could not see properly to learn.
Afghan girls settle down in their newly-refurbished classroom
The school building was in very poor repair and yet some 40 young children sat close together on forms in unheated rooms with little light and without anything on which to write, trying to catch up on the education they had previously been denied.
The girls were dressed in the thinnest of clothes and very cold. The teacher was not even receiving a regular salary in this holiday period but was there to teach them all the same.
The members of the Emergency Services team from The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters sent to Afghanistan to carry out a short-term ‘winterisation’ programme had probably, like me, imagined that would mean distributing bedding and food to people living in the most desperate of circumstances in war-ravaged buildings in the heart of the capital city. We were not wrong, though we did not realise what else our programme would cover.
a young Afghan boy struggles home with his precious food parcel
We did distribute much-needed aid from the backs of trucks to grateful people. We did enable families displaced after returning to their country from Pakistan and elsewhere – only to find their houses derelict and their livelihoods destroyed – to have adequate food for a month and to sleep on warmer bedding. We did watch people smile as they carried away sacks of flour and rice, and we did play clapping games with hungry children while they waited their turn in the queue.
But in Buthaq what we did will last.
In less than two weeks after our first visit we returned to the school to find it full of workmen. Plasterers, carpenters, painters and labourers had begun in so short a time to transform the dark and destroyed shell into a building with windows with glass and without holes.
a young boy holds on to his ration card, waiting to receive his parcel
An area designated as a playground was being flattened, stone by painstaking stone. Unnecessary doorways had been blocked up and the walls painted. When I was training to be a teacher a long time ago I dimly remember textbooks talking about ‘conducive learning environments’. Buthaq Primary School was on the way to being such an environment.
The headmaster was handsome, charming and smiling. He thanked us often for what had been done. He asked for warm clothing and for stationery. We arranged for clothing to be given and the generosity of three Salvation Army centres in the UK meant he also got his stationery.
UK Salvation Army officers Major Henry Silcock and Captain Imogen Stewart
– seconded to the Afghan Winterisation Project team –
with girls eager for education in a crumbling, dark classroom
A notice has been put up in front of the school telling the villagers in lettering they cannot read that The Salvation Army was responsible for its renovation. Inside the school, little girls will learn to read and write and count in their own language. They will have new opportunities for themselves, and for Afghanistan’s future. It doesn’t matter that they can’t read our notice – we helped give them something that will last.
Elizabeth Hayward, with head covered
prepares to distribute blankets
The woman in the Northampton shop would have no idea how warm that makes me feel!
Envoy Elizabeth Hayward is Field Operations and Training Officer in the Emergency Services office of the Salvation Army’s International Headquarters