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With an uncertain future under Taliban rule

Matiullah Wesa, left, and his brother, Attaullah Wesa, set up Pen Path Civil Society in 2009, which has reopened closed schools, libraries and scholarships across Afghanistan since its establishment.

IMRAN KHAN/HANDOUT

Matiullah Wesa was only in fourth grade when armed men rushed into his class, putting guns to his teachers’ heads and setting their open-air classroom and books on fire. His father had started this school for 900 boys and girls in Kandahar’s Maruf district in 2002. But that same year, it was attacked by militants. The school was targeted because female students were enrolled.

Mr. Wesa, 27, remained inspired by his father’s relentless fight to promote education in rural communities. He became an activist for education and founded Pen Path Civil Society in 2009, a non-governmental organization that has helped start and reopen hundreds of closed schools across Afghanistan.

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Since the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15, he has been more determined than ever to campaign for children’s rights to education, especially girls. As thousands of people streamed toward Kabul and its airport in a mass exodus, he never considered leaving Afghanistan. “I will never leave, and I will campaign for education here until the end,” Mr. Wesa said. “If we leave the country, who will build it?”

In Afghanistan, particularly in more conservative regions, girls are often denied the right to pursue an education. While the literacy rate for youth has increased to 65 per cent, there is still a substantial gender gap. The female literacy rate stands at 29.8 per cent, compared with 55 per cent for males.

Between 1996 to 2001, the last time the Taliban were in power, females were not allowed to attend school at all. After the Taliban were overthrown, educational opportunities, including for women, began to multiply. The number of children enrolled in schools increased to 6.3 million in 2017 from 3.8 million in 2003.

The path to education for children is still uncertain under the new leadership. The Taliban have insisted that they will not stop girls from going to school, and their acting higher education minister has said that while “Afghan girls have the right to study, they cannot study in the same classrooms with boys.”

There are concerns about how this will be executed – what education will look like for all children, whether girls can attend lessons beyond a certain age, and what the future holds for schools in remote, rural regions.

“If girls are allowed to go to school, can they access general versus just Islamic education? Will all classes and grades be open for them? This is still unclear,” said Pashtana Durrani, a 23-year-old educator and founder of LEARN, another education-oriented non-profit organization.

She also expressed concerns that there are not enough female teachers to teach girls, upon reports of women being forced to leave their jobs and professionals fleeing after the Taliban takeover.

Primary schools are supposed to start this week, Mr. Wesa said, with secondary schooling following the week after. He does not have direct contact with the Taliban, but he communicates frequently with tribal leaders and religious scholars. “In our culture, tribal leaders play a big role in voicing concerns,” he explained. “If the Taliban do not understand how important education is, we want to be able to speak with them at least through our elders. We do not want to be silent on this issue.”

Mr. Wesa presides over a class held outdoors and attended by Afghan girls in the Paron Area, Nooritan Province.

MATIULLAH WESA/HANDOUT

An estimated 3.7 million children in Afghanistan are out of school, with girls accounting for 60 per cent of that number, according to a report by World Bank. It also says almost half of Afghanistan’s 18,000 schools lack proper buildings. According to Mr. Wesa, some do not have female teachers or toilet facilities for girls.

Education has suffered continuous setbacks in Afghanistan, from school attacks to ghost schools, where schools said to be functioning on government funds or international aid were never actually opened because of corruption. Many children are unable to get to a classroom because they live too far away.

Children in rural communities are exposed to multiple risks. On top of the pandemic, drought and war, they also face child marriage and forced labour. Pen Path focuses on encouraging parents to send their children to school to combat these risks, hoping to create a cultural shift in attitudes toward education.

The NGO was launched in the most remote areas of Kandahar, Zabul, Khost, Helmand and Herat. According to Mr. Wesa, some of those regions’ villages – with more than 1,200 families – never had schools, and many still don’t. Pen Path initiated campaigns to open some by getting locals on board. It would typically take six months to a year for the previous government to approve the establishment of a school after Pen Path submitted a request.

Since its inception 12 years ago, the NGO has established 39 community libraries, registered 46 new schools and reopened 100 closed schools. It also operates a mobile library, where volunteers on motorcycles travel across areas devastated by fighting to distribute books and stationery to displaced children. The texts include works in Pashto and Dari, and cover all subject areas.

Pen Path is primarily self-funded and resourced through Mr. Wesa’s family and communities.

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Mr. Wesa grew up in Kandahar in the town of Maruf, one of 11 children. His father’s school was one of the first there. But in 2004, they had to relocate to the border town of Spin Boldak because of increased threats toward his father’s life.

He started Pen Path when he was a teenager, with his brother, Attaullah. It now has more than 2,400 volunteers, of which 400 are female teachers, whose continued participation depends on how education is set up going forward. Through a social-media campaign called #1book4peace, the NGO has collected more than 344,000 books that were donated to children across the country. It has also received stationery for more than 1.4 million children and wheelchairs for 200 youth with disabilities through other continuing drives.

“Education is the only solution to the ongoing conflict and the misery we face. So, we are ready to do everything in our power for the betterment of our young generation in this country,” said Saifullah Sargand, a volunteer with the organization for the past 11 years.

In 2017 the brothers began an eight-month campaign, riding motorcycles across Afghanistan to urge families from all ethnic groups to send their children to school. Wherever they received objection and threats from militants, they sought support from tribal and religious leaders. Now, Pen Path volunteers, primarily men, use motorcycles to travel to remote villages and go door-to-door to champion girls’ education. The campaign has continued up to now, but Mr. Wesa fears he may have to suspend it soon.

There are still other risks. Schools have been shut down each year because of violence. In areas where opening classrooms is too risky, volunteers have helped establish “underground schools.” These involve homeschooling and, in areas where there is access to the internet, online learning.

Mr. Wesa, his family and some of Pen Path’s most prominent volunteers have been continuously targeted by militants. But he is insistent on speaking up. “Pen Path is working as it has been working in the past. Our volunteers are campaigning in communities, and we are working harder than before.”

He continued: “We urge the international community now not to forget about Afghanistan, especially its children. Help us fight for every girl and boy to ensure they are not left out of classrooms and universities. We cannot be silent for even an hour. If we have literate people, there would be no war.”

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