May 28 2009

Educating Girls in Afghanistan with a Network Approach

by at 10:47 am under Uncategorized

Education inarguably is key for human development, yet in many countries this opportunity is specifically denied to girls – sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes for want of laborers. When girls are cut off from education, they are kept in a cycle with fewer opportunities, less access to the legal system, worse health and other deficiencies. Yet providing girls access to education is not as easy as simply opening a school, especially where religious leaders or fundamentalists are determined not to educate women.

Afghan girls in school, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

Afghan girls in school, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

The varied reasons for not educating girls once again prove that no development intervention can be one-size-fits-all. Opening and maintaining schools that educate girls in countries where some fundamentally oppose this requires tapping into different nodes of a network than if one wanted to open such schools where poverty was the main obstacle. This blog focuses on girls’ education in Afghanistan, a country where educating girls is a national priority but religious teaching remains a primary obstacle.

A girls’ education initiative in Afghanistan would require tapping into hyperlocal network nodes (rather than focusing on firms, as Sturgeon et al discuss) and including the “enemy,” so to speak. Religious clerics must be part of the discussions because often opposition comes from them. As clerics tend to be the opinion leaders in many areas, ensuring their support is vital for success. The project likewise would need to include local civic leaders, some of whom are sect chiefs and also opinion leaders, and who look to the religious leaders for validation.

Involving both of these groups may slow down progress toward tangible action, but these nodes of power cannot be ignored. In areas where girls’ schools have local support, they are much less likely to face backlash and violence from fundamentalists. Further, more families will send their daughters to the school if they feel comfortable with it and the curriculum, and if they see local and religious leaders supporting the initiative. Families should be approached on an individual basis, both to establish trust and to ensure that stakeholder concerns are heard.

The network connections then must extend beyond to local to include international institutions, such as the World Bank and UNICEF, who can provide funding and support for girls’ schools. While educating girls is a goal of such institutions, there is likely to be conflict between the institutions and the religious and local leaders. A mediator must help both groups understand the common goal – human development – while tempering any attempt on the institutions’ part to take over the project or punitively withhold funds because the school isn’t conceptualized to their exact specifications.

UNICEF-run lessons for girls in a refugee camp. Courtesy Reuters

UNICEF-run lessons for girls in a refugee camp. Courtesy Reuters

These are just two of the main network nodes that must be consulted – space precludes listing all here, but others involve local and international businesses (for financial support), the media (to spread the message and foster pride in educating girls), and NGOs (to help sustain the schools and train teachers).

Opening, securing and maintaining girls’ education in Afghanistan is likely to be a frustratingly slow process. But skipping any step of the slow development process will lead only to failure. Using the multilayer network of local and international provides flexibility to face adversity and secures international monetary support while creating strong local connections. The goal is for stakeholders to agree that educating girls is important for the country, Afghan culture and the girls themselves. Stakeholders have very divergent interests and the religious overtones in Afghanistan present an additional obstacle beyond just poverty. But pride in educating girls puts nodes of the network on the same path to a common goal, and must be highlighted during all steps of the process.

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