School girls in Farah / écolières de Farah

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Une bibliothèque/CDI et centre pour femmes et enfants en Afghanistan

A public library and centre for women and children in Afghanistan

with HOLD, a Kabul/Farah based NGO

a FemAid/HOLD joint project

with ACA in Toronto.

opened in May 2009

inaugurated November 1st 2009

KIDSREAD VIDEO ON/SUR YOU-TUBE: http://www.acagallery.com/acagallery/media/video.php

STOP PRESS: Report of our first course with HOLD for midwives starting February 2010

Farah is situated in Western Afghanistan, near the Iranian border, between Herat and Kandahar. It is one the rural regions that have been ignored by major aid agencies, with the notable exception of PRT which have been active in many fields.Population estimates vary through lack of official documentation and the sheer difficulty in undertaking any such research, but 200 000 inhabitants make up a conservative estimate.

This is a remote area indeed where women’s lives are extremely hard, to the point that self-immolation is a frequent occurrence [1]. The level of health and literacy is extremely low, infant and maternal mortality are very high [2]. This is a region crying out for help.

FemAid, a French charitable organisation, is the only non-Afghan charity involved in the Farah area.

For three years, we had been working on a library/early learning centre project.. We launched it in temporary premises, with the help of a local grass- roots women's association and PRT. Then in May 2009 , the project expanded to a fully-fledged women and children's centre. More than library it also houses various courses and counselling activities, run exclusively Afghan women, thereby becoming a true social centre in the midst of Farah.

Our target audience are young women and their children, that is to say most of the school-going population in a region where girls are married by the age fourteen to fifteen and have children immediately. It seemed to us pointless to enforce school education and literacy when no books were available afterwards. This project is primarily designed to help schools in their long-term mission.

In 2008, we bought a very large amount of Persian-language books in Kabul and then in 2009 another consignement of children's books, encyclopedias, reference books and toys in Mashad for this library. Pashto and English-language books and teaching methods were also acquired. The temporary library served as a revolving library for schools in the Farah province. School directors borrowed books on a regular basis for their school. We also bought 60 encyclopedias for 60 schools.

We were careful to choose books respectful of Islamic law and Afghan custom,to avoid any adverse reaction, fiction and non fiction, world literature, works covering the fields of sciences, history, technology, practical medicine, first aid, childcare, home economics , as well as reference works (encyclopaedias, dictionaries and teaching aids).

The early-learning centre is equally important in Afghanistan where children are perceived as incomplete adults and the specificity of childhood is denied.

Misguided aid

When American PRT (Provincial reconstruction team) offered to incorporate the library within a civic building they were putting up, we were very happy and proceeded to buy large quantities of books : encyclopedias, fairy tales, children’s books, practical books and toys in Persian language.
Unfortunately, despite good will, the architects responsible for the building were not sensitive to the importance of tradition and the restrictions women have to face in their daily lives.It was just impossible for women to actually use a public building. . So by the time it opened, in late April 2009, we found out that the female population would not be using it. This occurrence is all too frequent in Afghanistan, unfortunately, as anthropologists are not called in to advise.

Getting an independent centre started

FemAid has been involved in this project for three years. There is no giving up. With our implementing partner HOLD, we decided to work on a structure that would be culturally, socially acceptable, even in these exceptionally difficult circumstances. Having all the local contacts (essential for such a project), this was feasible. PRT was very encouraging as well.

 With HOLD, our implementing partner and sister association in Afghanistan, a grass-roots organisation,we decided to transfer the whole project and open a women’s centre, a place where young women feel comfortable to go with their children We rented a building, installed a family and guard and transferred the books and toys. All this has been successfully undertaken in the month of May 2009. Shelves, tables, chairs were built, carpets put down.

The library in the centre is the first of its kind; furthermore, girls have been attending massively school since the fall of the Taliban. There is a 8000-strong student population in the city. It is located near the nearby Mirman Nazoo girls' school. There are 3000 female pupils there, studying in shifts, many of them former refugees, of which half of them are married and many mothers (marriage takes place quite often at 13 or 14 if not before).

The centre was opened in May 2009

In October, the PRT generously ddonate a large office package which comprised furniture (including the oversized couches that are 'must' in any Afghan administration), computer, printer, paper. We can only hope that electricity lasts longer than three hours a day so that everyone can enjoy this equipment

The Center comprises :

A library

An early-learning centre where children learn from playing (the first of its kind in Afghanistan)- this is still at its beginniçngs. We need to train someone to work there specifically with young children. For the moment it is a toy room, which is a novelty in itself.

A centre for various courses (literacy, English maths)

A counselling centre: for the moment, we are employing, Huma an experienced nurse and midwife to come in to talk to women.

We decided on a programme that would really benefit the women, run by Afghan professionals, tapping into local resources and responding to requests that had been made to us.
These are the areas that need to be addressed.

The library in the Farah Centre for Women and Children below the toy room .

Looking at the mid-term :

Computers and internet

Health and psychological counselling

Health education including reproductive health

Legal counselling and women’s rights, both constitutional and Q’uranic :

Income-generating courses : including dressmaking

Looking into the long term:

The radio station

The radio station is a long term project which could promote the centre and give a voice to the women and also transmit courses on health, legal education, advice on all fields including leading to income generation.

Solar energy project

Solar energy is very new to Afghanistan. This centre could be a pioneer in the field, based on experiences which have already taken place in Afghanistan. Some training courses have been attempted in Afghanistan through This centre could be equipped with solar energy, then women could be trained to make solar lanterns and also the batteries were surplus solar energy can be stocked and sold. http://www.hedon.info/HouseholdEnergyInAfghanistan

The saffron project

Farmers in Afghanistan have been encouraged to grow saffron to replace opium. This centre could teach women to grow it through courses and actually growing the plant in the centre-which again could be sold afterwards. DACAAR and DFID have produced a manual for this

www.icarda.org/Ralfweb/PDFs/SaffronManualForAfghanistan.pdf -

What we need help for

As FemAid does not have an office in Kabul and is operated on an entirely voluntary basis (its director being a researcher and university professor), all moneys raised through fund raising operations are donated directly to the projects which are run according to local financial norms.
This how we have been able to work successfully for eight years on limited budgets.

We are seeking financial aid for the following :

Running costs for the centre itself

-  Paying salaries, fees and expenses for tutors, outside intervention and various experts coming to the centre (including transport : at a later date, the purchase of a vehicle may prove essential)

- Training a young woman to run an Early Learning Centre for children

- Paying fees for weekly visits of a legal advisor.

-  Paying for training courses for personnel to work in the centre in the field of early learning and counselling

-  Purchase of manual sewing-machines to train women and donate afterwards to those who have completed the course.

-  Creating a radio-station

-  Creating educational programmes in the health field to be transmitted via radio

Unfortunate extras such as paying families to let the women attend courses, as a compensation for their labour not being done in the home. We have had to resort to this in the past for literacy classes.

 

This in brief is our project.
If successful, it could really become a pilot project for the whole of Afghanistan

 Some articles by Carol Mann

1] Carol Mann : le suicide des jeunes filles afghanes, Terra, 2006: http://www.womeninwar.org/cmann_shahide.html

2] Carol Mann : ‘Afghanistan’s dtying mothers” Pakistan Daily Times, 11.2/08 http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008\11\02\story_2-11-2008_pg3_6

3] Carol Mann : Un projet de bibliothèque pour jeunes en Afghanistan, Sisyphe Montréal) 1/27/07

4] Carol Mann : L’enfance est-elle possible en Afghanistan, Enfance et Psy, november 2008

www.cairn.info/article.php?ID_ARTICLE = EP_040_0165

 

Background situation :

Since the fall of the Taliban, an increasing number of children and young people have been attending school, more in fact than ever before as an effort has been made even in the remotest provinces to enrol students of every age. This is why classes are filled with pupils aged anywhere between seven and twenty, as young women are eager to get some kind of education. Even in distant villages, there has been a demand for schools. Furthermore an increasing number of children and adolescents have been returning to Afghanistan after many years abroad, forming the bulk of the 3. 5 million returnees that have been finding the way home since 2001. In exile as refugees, many had the opportunity to lean English and other foreign languages. Today there are no public libraries and those that exist have meagre resources and are attached to universities, principally Kabul university where there are rebuilding projects with US partner universities, therefore only available to students.

A convivial library, well equipped in books, learning material, films and music with a language laboratory for individual learning of languages is of of the utmost necessity. Literacy classes are useless if no appropriate reading material is provided. Furthermore, without libraries, it would be impossible to maintain any previous knowledge of foreign languages as well as learning new ones, as young people fluent in English and other languages have generally chosen to work for NGOs rather than go for poorly paid teaching.

Projects aimed at youth are vital in a country where the median age of the Afghan population is 17.5. This library is aimed at young students in primary and secondary schools and their teachers : because many girls learn to read at a comparatively late age, primary schools often bring together young boys and teenage girls. A special section is reserved to very young children who are usually cared for by their older sisters or young mothers : illustrated books and toys await them whilst their siblings use the other library facilities.

More than a library, this is a place for exchange and communication, study and active workshops, in collaborations with other efforts to build up a civil society.

In the future, through computers and Internet facilities, links with other schools and cultural youth groups worldwide could be established. This centre, situated in one of the key areas of Afghanistan could be at the centre of many cultural exchanges between young people and schools East and West.

From every point of view this is a pioneering project which will further Education for All and be of great help to the schools in the area.

Furthermore, for a society emerging from over a quarter of a century of war, a special area within the library with learning activities designed for young children will contribute to enrich perceptions of childhood generally. Half the pupils in the Mirman Nazoo are married and mothers, so the idea is that they could come to the library with their children. Playing as a learning activity for children does not exist, because the concept of childhood as a period of discovery, learning and development is inexistent. Just as in pre-Enlightenment Europe, a child is considered just an incomplete, immature non-sexual adult who has to train for future hardship, especially girls. An area devoted to an Early Learning Centre, with creative games and toys will certainly advance the cause of childhood here.

Project management :

This project is the brainchild of FemAid, a registered charity in Paris and ACA Gallery in Toronto which organizes and promotes art shows to support charitable causes. Both Carol Mann and Carol Mark have been to Afghanistan and working in the humanitarian field for many years.

We are working with HOLD, our implementation agency and an Afghan charity based both in Farah and Kabul and its representative . They handle the finances that we send from our Paris base

Carol Mark is a trained psychiatric nurse and Carol Mann is a sociologist, with a PhD on the subject of ‘Traditions and transformations in the life of Afghan women in Pakistani refugee camps’ and has written a number of articles and papers on women in Afghanistan. Zala Ahmad is an expert in education and aid projects.

Support

We have the support of the Farah local authorities, and the local branch of the PRT. We also have the support of the French embassy in Kabul, GSN in Melbourne (Global Sister Network) and the the US PRT stationed in Farah and UN Habitat in Kabul. More official support is forthcoming.

 

US Soldier from PRT delivering children's shoes at the Centre

Considerations after the exploratory trip to Farah

Why build a library in a war-torn country ? On one level it seems self-defeating, pointless if Taliban are going to torch it. Should we stop at that ? The challenge is a far more vital one. The intensity of my voyage to Farah in June 2006 reminded me of my initiatory trip to wartime Sarajevo in the summer of 1994, I had encountered, for the first time this particular mixture of despair and hope. With Azra, an amazing woman from the city who had reorganized the education system in her neighbourhood, we dreamt of rebuilding their school. In those days, the siege felt interminable and the return to a normal life seemed beyond the scope of imagination. But somehow it happened : together we created a small charity called ‘Enfants de Bosnie’ with the official patronage of UNESCO, the active help of the Council of Europe, the Swiss government, the Conseil régional de l’Île de France and the French contingent of UNPROFOR stationed in Sarajevo, the miracle occurred. School children all over the world participated with letters, drawings and fund raising. The Skender Kulenovic school in Dobrinja is the most beautiful in the Balkans- see www.os-sk.edu.ba/historijat.htm. In the middle of the siege, whilst the future of Bosnia was uncertain, we managed to register the school on the UNESCO Associated Schools project scheme which turned it into Bosnia’s famous school !

 Likewise, the seemingly improbable library project remains emblematic of a future for the new generation of Afghans as well as our own kids. Their fates are intertwined : what affects women in Afghanistan ends up having consequences in our own world, as the rise of reactionary politics all over the world ominously demonstrates. Sharing literacy, literature, arts and games, a culture that is neither consumer nor religion orientated, creating a common set of references through positive dreams and social ideals may create bonds that wars and politics might have otherwise irretrievably destroyed. The fight goes on, for them, for us. And in our globalized society, your help will make a difference not just in Afghanistan, but in your own environment.

 

Carol Mann

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Rooftop view/Vue à partir d'une toiture

Ancient Farah

Typical interior of a housing compound

Young girls overlooking a roof-top

Entrance to library building

Boy standing standing typical 'gumbazi' earth cupola, traditional architecture at dusk

 

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Report of our first course with HOLD for midwives starting February 2010