Walking into the girls high school in Pashtun Zarghun, I was amazed by what I saw – 1,700 students crowded into a school designed to hold no more than 1,000.
Never before in the history of this rural district have this many girls attended school.
Mohammed Daud, the district’s education head, calls it a “revolution” of girls’ education.
“In the 1960s only one woman graduated from high school in the entire district. It wasn’t until 2009 that 17 girls graduated for the first time. This year we hope at least thirty girls will graduate”.
Pashtun Zarghun is a district in the east of Herat province. Out of the district’s total 180,000 residents, 37,000 are now enrolled in school. At 16,000-strong, over 40 per cent of the student body are female.
Though improvements in female education are considered to be among Afghanistan’s greatest successes in the last decade, the credit for the remarkable advances in Pashtun Zarghun goes mainly to the people themselves.
Every day, many girls take risks and endure hardships to attend schools where six of them will have to squeeze onto a bench designed for only two.
Here you will see classes being held under torn tents with only one teacher for every 58 students. Despite these challenges, some girls still walk long distances from remote villages for the chance to be educated.
Azita Sabir Shahi, who will graduate this year, walks at least an hour to and from school each day.
“My father and mother were illiterate. They understood how much the suffered because they weren’t educated. That’s why they encouraged me to go to school”, 19-year-old Shahi says.
Even with the gains made in such a short period of time, girls like Shahi still face daily obstacles to their education.
The Taliban continue to pose a security threat in the area. Then there are the cultural difficulties that still keep many of Pashtun Zarghun’s school-aged girls from completing an education.
But Shahi keeps working to overcome these constant hurdles in order to complete her education. She dreams of becoming a teacher, so that she can help others rebuild this country, a task she says requires sacrifice and bravery.
Looking around at the physical state of the classroom, I ask some students if they felt let down by the lack of facilities. The pupils said that even if all they learned in a single day was one word, they would still attend.
The one thing that does still concern them, though, is security.
The girls fear the prospect of another war or another regime which would again keep them from education. The students say this is a very real prospect if the international community once again abandons girls just like them throughout the country.
Yet, to look at the physical condition of the school, there is very little evidence of the billions of dollars in international aid that has poured into Afghanistan over the past ten years.
What is readily apparent, though, is a hunger for education.
From the provincial capital, it takes two-and-a-half hours along a dirt road to reach Pasthun Zarghun, where there is little sense of the new technology enjoyed in Herat city.
Yet, despite many students having never heard of the internet, they do know the value of education.
To these girls, education offers a glimmer of hope for the uncertain future in their war-torn nation.