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Afghanistan: between hope and despair.

In a dusty makeshift classroom two-days' journey north of Kabul, Sayida begins her lessons in fifth-grade reading and writing. Her oldest daughter sits beside her--also a student in the fifth grade.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's never too late to learn," she tells a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) worker. At 35 years old and a mother of six, this is the first chance Sayida has had at an education. Nearly all of her life Afghanistan has been in civil turmoil. She was married at 15, and her family never had enough money to send her to school. Then, under the rule of the Taliban since 1996, females were not allowed to be educated.

In March 2002, however, that ban was lifted, and now Sayida and her daughter are just two of many women in Afghanistan enrolled in accelerated basic learning programs administered by CRS to shed light on subjects such as reading, writing, and math after a dark age under a mandatory veil.

"It's nice, we can help each other," Sayida says of her daughter and classmate.

The country's crumbled infrastructure is also being resurrected. With the help of international relief organizations and by the hands of Afghans themselves, farms and roads are being returned to working order. And a working order, it is hoped, can bring a peaceful order.

Even before the Taliban and its totalitarian regime took hold, Afghanistan was a nation in disarray--torn apart by two decades of war, violence, and foreign occupation. In addition, a drought has plagued the nation (or the last five years, leaving its citizens hungry and malnourished.

Nearly three years after September 11 and the ousting of the Taliban, the fate of Afghanistan still hangs in the balance of desperation and hope. While many still rely on food aid to survive--in one week in April the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) distributed 4,000 tons of food to almost 500,000 people--some are beginning to support themselves through farming initiatives, rebuilding roads and canals, and education.

For CRS, the educational programs serve the smallest number, but Peter Constable, a CRS resource specialist for Afghanistan, says these programs have a high return. "Educating the community brings a double benefit because it is helpful in both the short and long term," Constable says.

In some rural areas illiteracy rates reach a staggering 80 percent for adults. Children and teenagers who are years behind in basic subjects are also catching up through accelerated learning programs in the hopes of being reintegrated into public schools.

In tents and simple structures, or even in a courtyard if there's nowhere else to go, they sit on the ground with their books in their laps. The teacher, a local person who has been trained by CRS, stands in front of her class with a lesson and perhaps a chalkboard. There are no computers or calculators, no filmstrips or videos. Even the most basic equipment--some paperback textbooks--are precious commodities. The program uses the same books as the public schools, and the government simply cannot afford to produce very many of them, so the students share.

In Kapisa and Parwan, provinces north of Kabul, the learning programs serve almost 2,000 students with classes designed to compress one school year or grade into six months' time. Seventy percent of the students are female.

Teenagers and adults are trained to be teachers, whether by profession or as a parent. Morshal, a 16-year-old teacher, says the students are making great progress. "The war had a very negative effect on schooling for women," she says. "But now classes are going so well that our subjects have increased to include Dari language, religion, math, and literacy."

The United Nations sponsors education programs on a much larger scale, and through WFP it provides food to almost 1 million schoolchildren as an incentive to attend. In some areas, as an extra incentive to keep girls in school, females receive four liters of cooking oil. Since early 2002, the ratio of girls to boys in school has improved from 3-to-10 to 6-to-10 nationwide.

CRS programs are located within rural communities, so families do not have to be concerned about safety issues and cultural prohibitions involved in sending girls out of the village alone. CRS works closely with each community's shura, or community council, to set up the programs and to encourage families to send their children. Constable says that half of the program's efforts are teaching, and half are mobilizing the community. When CRS enters a community they first meet with the shura, and then CRS staff goes house to house to determine who is most in need.

"A close relationship with the community is really what makes a program successful, so we work very hard to maintain cooperative relationships," says Constable. Part of that is being very careful to be seen as separate from any military activity in the area.

Since March 2002, when the Afghan winter ended and exiles started to return, almost 2 million refugees and 900,000 displaced persons have returned to their homeland. But the infrastructure is simply not ready to serve them. The teetering ruins of buildings in Kabul are now home to thousands of squatters with nowhere else to go. Another 2 million Afghans remain in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

The drought emergency, which began in 1999, continues today, making it difficult for farmers to get back on their feet. But the 2002 harvest, which was 50 percent larger than 2001, gave hope. According to WFP, a record-setting yield meant that the country's import needs dropped about 75 percent. Unfortunately the market price for wheat fell in 2003, and infrastructure problems made it hard to distribute the grains to the southern regions of Afghanistan where it is less abundant. So while it seems that conditions are improving, Susana Rico, WFP director for Afghanistan, warns that the poorest households will still need relief. "These families have been worn down by years of conflict, and the improved economic and agricultural situation will simply not filter down to them"

Immediately after the onset of war in Afghanistan, much of the relief work was focused on meeting basic needs--food, shelter, and clothing. WFP reports that 70 percent of the 28 million Afghans are still malnourished. More than 50 percent of children under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, which leads to stunted growth.

While survival assistance continues in many areas, the second phase of relief, what CRS calls rehabilitation--rebuilding roads, canals, homes, buildings, irrigation systems, and farms--is also underway. A cash-for-work program provides employment for the local people who do the construction in places like Herat and Kandahar provinces. The hope is that the third phase, development, will succeed because the communities have been reconstructed with the proper supports in place, such as adequate education and the ability to provide for themselves.

But rebuilding a community that can support itself will not be easy. Many of the communities that experienced mass exodus over the last 20 years have turned into veritable ghost towns. Community structures were neglected and have literally fallen apart. CRS pays workers $60 per month to reconstruct canals. There are also small grants available for families to get started in business again. These grants help a family purchase a farm animal or two, materials for carpet weaving, or a sewing machine, for example. CRS' agricultural programs serve a total of 150,000 Afghans.

Programs through WFP provide agricultural assistance such as seed, fertilizer, and protection against locusts that frequently destroy crops.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Osama bin Laden goes on, and warlords outside of Kabul continue to fight one another for power in often bloody battles. Some UN programs have had to be suspended in particularly dangerous areas. Currently 15,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan, including the addition of 2,000 more Marines in March, and tensions will most certainly heat up as the first general elections approach in September.

But away from the chaos are just average people, poor people, trying to survive and provide a good life for their families. Those who can remember what Afghanistan was like decades ago want very badly to restore their homeland to what it once was, and they pass those dreams on to the newest generation.

"The people there are always telling us what life was like for them before, what they had done, and what they had before they had to flee," says Constable. "They want to make that life for their family again, and the children have a tremendous amount of hope despite the conditions. I was really struck by the amount of hope I saw."

Sayida, at 35 years old learning to read and write alongside her daughter, is a portrait of this hope--"It's never too late."

TARA K. DIX is assistant editor of U.S. CATHOLIC.

MARTIN LUEDERS is a freelance photographer based in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:educating women
Author:Dix, Tara K.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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