AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar: Kandahar, a city in the south of Afghanistan, has been on the frontline of the battles for and the heart of the Taliban’s uprising back in the 1990s. Like many other provinces, the Taliban and other groups still have a presence there. The devastating war has deprived people of education and literacy in some parts of the province. But for Matiullah Wesa, an education activist, who works voluntarily to reopen schools, the end is just the beginning.
An activist determined to bring a change in Afghanistan
29-year-old Wesa was a student studying in his home district Maruf in 2002 when the anti-government groups stormed his school and burnt it down. After the incident, Wesa had to continue to live a normal life like other Afghans. While growing up, his father and grandfather told him that the last option to attain freedom was education.
From there, his journey into education activism began. His father opened one of the first schools in the city before war forced them to relocate to Spinbaldak, a border commercial hub in Kandahar.
In 2009, he decided not to let other children encounter the same fate anymore. Wesa accompanied by his brother Attaullah Wesa founded The Pen Path Civil Society (A non-profit organization) when he was just a teenager and aimed at providing education for the impoverished parts of Kandahar and other places where once schools were forced to shut down due to the war.
Working in remote areas
The PPCS-which went by another name in its first years- worked to reopen schools, open schools, and promote equal access to education for boys and girls in Kandahar remote villages by providing awareness and through tribal elders mediation and support. His team travels to remote areas to raise awareness where catastrophic war excluded children from education rights.
In an interview with Transcontinental Times, Wesa said, “It’s been a decade that the Pen Path traveled village to village and house by house to promote education and emphasize on girls education in particular. This is girls’ and women’s right and they should attend schools.”
“It’s a proven fact that we don’t have 1 single female high school graduate in 140 districts in Afghanistan, ” he said. He further emphasized that girls’ education was critical to change the village’s views and progressing society.
“Lack of education is the main cause for violation of human rights. We help the vulnerable people including women and children in Afghanistan to access the education.”
His PPCS team of volunteers hold talks with the religious and tribal leaders to mobilize them to persuade in reopening the schools, even in the areas under Taliban control.
When asked how he manages to reopen the schools in the areas under the Taliban control, he said, “We engage directly with the elders and tribal leaders of the villages to convince them in asking the Taliban that we are not funded by the government. We just want our children to go to school.”
Over 71% of all Afghans live in rural areas according to UNICEF, and 60% of the children who are away from education are girls according to the statistics. Some are hindered from access to education due to the country’s geographical landlocked state that makes it hard for some to reach schools, especially in mountainous regions.
“These Pen Path volunteers went to remote and the most insecure villages where there have been no schools or schools were closed for years,” Nabila Asadi, a female civil activist from Kandahar said.
SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) estimated that 40% of the Afghanistan population is aged 14 or younger. It said, “Developing a quality education system serves as a long-term investment in human capital for Afghan economy and democratic system of the government.”
According to the recent data by Afghanistan’s Education Ministry, 5 million children are out of school.
The Pen Path civil society that goes without any funding, may not help to reduce the number significantly in a country where 6,000 schools have no buildings at all and 50 percent of the country’s 17,000 schools lack adequate facilities.
But, since 2009, PPCS reopened 100 schools, helped in opening 45 schools in Kandahar, Helmand, Urozgan, Zabul, Farah, Nimroz, Ghazni, Badghis, Nooristan, Logar, Herat, Paktia, and Paktika, that enabled 43,000 students to go back to school, providing 325,000 books, according to the details shared with Transcontinental Times.
Radiqa, a young girl from Sara-Tor Baba school in the Spink-Boldak district of Kandahar, says she can now even write in English. “I am happy that I can go back to school, and I want to become a doctor because we don’t have doctors in our village.”
Promotion of volunteering work for human rights
Today the PPCS has over 2,200 volunteers, of which 4,00 are females, in all the 34 provinces. They have also launched several campaigns of Motorcycle and Book distribution to literate the people in insecure rural areas, especially the elders.
The volunteers established 37 public libraries in several provinces and opened three computer labs at Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province.
Wesa who finished a degree in political science in India, and his campaign friends all work voluntarily, receiving no funds from any governmental institution. They believe it is more of self-satisfaction and inner peace than money and popularity. “There’s no financial gain, but it gives you so much joy to help other people,” Wesa said, adding that volunteering should be part of the workforce in Afghanistan.
Engineer Mangal, a volunteer from Laja Mangal district of Paktia province who has been working with other volunteers told Transcontinental Times that he’s been working with this civil society for 8 years without any privilege, just “for the sake of the poor people”.
“I work to spread awareness about education for people. This is proud for us to reopen schools in places where they were closed by war. I feel happy to work as a volunteer for our poor people,” he said.
Saifullah Sargand, another volunteer from Ghazni province, said that they could open schools in places “where the government failed to do so with all of its facilities for the past years.”
“We opened a school in the Sarhad area of Khost province where now 350 students go to school there every day. Eight months ago amid Corona outbreak, we went to the eastern of Afghanistan, people were so happy and welcomed us warmly that I have never seen such ever.”
Muqadasa Ahmadzai, a female civil activist from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, where ISIS has a huge presence, says the awareness and campaigns by the Pen Path reached the province at a hard time when ISIS had already burnt down some schools and had massive operations. “Despite the ISIS presence they came to Nangarhar and their campaigns for education and encouragement of the people were productive.”
“Nations where there are campaigns of education and encouragement for their problems, their voices will be heard and their problems will be solved.”
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“Afghan government is failing us”
Wesa and his brother who spent a decade of their life as education activists and education lovers now complain of the hollow promises by the government.
“Everyday people from villages are getting in touch and are asking for schools, qualified teachers, the ministry of education, national, and international NGOs are turning a blind eye to all these needs, ” Matiuallah Wesa said.
“We want education for every young person from Badakhshan to Kandahar, Nooristan, and Bamiyan. We want university education for every young boy and girl. This is our Islamic right and we won’t allow anybody to take it from us.”
Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani traveled to Kandahar and addressed the lack of teachers in the province. He pledged that 4,000 more teachers would be provided by the government to help in education.
Meanwhile, in recent days, protests across several provinces Kabul are held by the school students. Students From Faiz Mohammad Katib High School in western Kabul, Dashte-barchi protested about the shortage of teachers and textbooks at the school. They carried placards saying “Minister, we want Teachers” and “Minister, we want textbooks”.