How one British-Afghan woman wants to help educate the women and girls of Afghanistan

7 min read
22 December, 2022
Farida, an Afghan living in the UK and head of The Needy Charity, has done life-changing grassroots work for Afghan girls and women's education, something they have been battling endlessly ever since the Taliban's return in August 2021.

"The past four decades prove that Afghan women are some of the strongest women in the world," begins Farida.

In a country that has faced constant conflict spanning over 50 years, Afghan women, like 50-year-old Farida, have displayed remarkable strength and resilience each day. 

Farida first left her homeland, Afghanistan, for Russia in 1996 when her youngest child was only four months old. Soon she suddenly had to flee to Russia, and she eventually came to the UK in 2000, where she remains today.

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Central Kabul had been taken over by the Taliban after the Afghan-Soviet war had decimated parts of the country, leaving behind a giant power vacuum. This left her with no choice but to leave behind her career as a teacher and her husband's career in the army in search of a better life for their family. 

Now Farida is based in London, where she has raised her children in the past twenty years and remotely runs her charity, The Needy Charity, providing educational workshops in her native Afghanistan.

Over the past decade, educational activists and organisations have spent significant resources on rebuilding the education sector, but as soon as the Taliban took over, this came to a depressing halt, undoing years of progress. 

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A battle for education 

Education is one of Farida’s passions and expanding this sector in her native Afghanistan was always her dream. Each week she receives reports from on-the-ground volunteers and teachers who carry out the day-to-day activities of the charity.

Initially, the charity started to provide shelter and aid to young women but has since refocused its efforts towards providing education to young women. 

"I’ve always dreamed of giving back to the country that did so much for me. I grew up in poverty, so I started working at 16 to support my family, but the extreme levels of destitution amongst women and girls in Afghanistan today is unimaginable," Farida tells The New Arab.

Since the Taliban took over the country after America withdrew its troops in August last year, the lives of many, most specifically women and children, were immediately vulnerable. The Taliban immediately ordered all women and young girls to stay at home, banning them from schools and universities. When going out in public, a male relative must accompany them

According to the Malala Fund, 3.7 million children, mostly girls, were already out of school before the Taliban takeover. However, since they took over, an additional 1.2 million Afghan girls have been banned from attending secondary school, bringing the number of children out of education significantly higher.

And in the latest move to restrict human rights in Afghanistan, the Taliban's minister for higher education this week ordered all public and private universities to bar women from attending.

The plight of Afghan women has left many orphans, and in extreme poverty, Farida explains. Many women are giving into polygamy in the hopes of having a son who can go to school and work. They believe that a son will bring their life sustenance, unlike a girl who cannot even go to school or work to support her family. 

Only young girls up to Year 6 are able to attend school, but this leaves them with only the basic skills of knowing how to read and write. The Taliban are adamant that the role of women in Afghan society is relegated to looking after the house and the family. Meanwhile, the private educational sector runs smoothly, though it still separates the two genders. 

Yet few Afghan families can afford to send their children to private schools, making it a privilege that few can enjoy. ‘Some of these women and children are widowed, orphans and have no food or shelter. The thought of being able to have a private education is firmly out of reach for the majority.’

"Many women are giving into polygamy in the hopes of having a son who can go to school and work. They believe that a son will bring their life sustenance, unlike a girl who cannot even go to school or work to support her family"

Redefining Afghanistan

But the repressive Afghanistan that Farida observes from the news and accounts of family members is a far cry from the country she grew up in. "When I grew up, the previous regime encouraged many females to become activists and to speak openly about their struggles. Now we are completely silenced and banned from even being visible."

Farida often looks back fondly at her early childhood memories; playing with her friends and family in the mountains north of Kabul city, where temperatures would drop as low as -25 degrees. "I remember playing with the neighbourhood children in the snow, making snowballs and sliding down the icy slopes. Life felt so carefree and fun back then."

The reality for young Afghans today, however, is a far cry from the idyllic childhood Farida experienced thirty years ago.

Right now, Afghans are facing a heavy winter crisis with fears of famine as farmers deal with heavy droughts and the prices of basic goods skyrocket. This winter, many are in fear of sleeping on the street without any food or shelter in the harsh winter temperatures. Farida is currently fundraising to provide ‘winter packs’ with food and warm blankets to as many families as possible.  

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The UN Development Programme (UNDP) reported that since August 15, 2021, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, Afghanistan has been plunged into a "humanitarian and economic crisis that devastated people's lives and livelihoods." The report concludes that at least ten years of economic growth had been reversed in just 12 months. 

Women have been the backbone of important services in Afghanistan, such as healthcare, teaching and government administration. Their exclusion from working has huge consequences, potentially costing the economy up to $1 billion, which is 5% of the country's GDP. It’s vital, according to the UNDP, that female-run small and medium-sized businesses can help grow and support the Afghan economy. One of the many barriers to this, however, is education, which the Taliban have entirely forbidden for women. 

The Needy Charity's accomplishments

While this remains an impossible dream for many Afghans, Farida is committed to ensuring women and children of Afghanistan can receive the education and skills they desperately need. As a relatively small and little-known charity, Farida has over 60 families registered and the support of 10 volunteers, but she hopes it can one day expand further.

So far, donations from abroad have enabled the charity to run regular community classes teaching basic skills. Her charity has purchased mobile trolleys, sewing machines and other equipment to provide individuals with essential skills and tools to eventually start their own businesses. "Teaching has always been a very motivating career for me, and it enables us to empower and support young people. At its core, teaching is an ongoing act of charity."

Ever since the Taliban imposed a complete ban on education for young girls, their thirst for being provided with educational skills and subjects hasn't ceased to grow [Getty Images]

Afghan teenagers are taught core subjects like maths, English and science by volunteer teachers and professors in the hopes that they can earn international academic certificates. Farida hopes that these lessons can prepare students for IELTS examinations so they can enrol in online distance-learning courses from abroad. Or, if possible, to move out of Afghanistan one day and study at a university abroad. 

Every week she meets women of varying ages and demographics, who each share feelings of desperation and hopelessness.  Juma, an elderly woman in her late 70s, recently became widowed and lost three of her children in the last twenty years of the war. She was left with 15 grandchildren to look after and resorted to begging and selling chickpeas on the street to be able to provide for them, especially for her 12-year-old grandson suffering from diabetes. 

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When she encountered Farida’s charity, a donor from Canada was able to provide sponsorship for her and her family, giving her hope for the future of her grandkids. Farida and her colleagues refer to her as ‘grandma,’ and seeing her finally smile was one of their greatest joys.  

Yet, so far, Farida’s proudest achievement is the "educational corner," a small, modest library she built in her community centre. Girls can sit, drink a cup of tea, and learn to read together in small groups.

"Small moments like sitting down to read a book or participating in class with other students feel magical to them. I can see how motivated they are and the happiness on their faces. They finally see a future worth working towards," Farida says with a smile.

Kushie Amin is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Metro, Glamour (UK), Refinery29 and The Independent.