Canadian group on front line of efforts to ensure Afghan girls, women get an education
'If the girls are educated ... the society will be educated,' says Afghan student
After taking attendance and greeting each bright voice chiming in from behind the colourful circles on her screen, the teacher launches into her lesson. She lectures as she scrolls through slides, moving through rainbow-hued maps, photos of mountain ranges and geographical facts about Asia.
It seems like a typical virtual lesson — a format now familiar to most Canadians after the prevalence of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic — but this Grade 7 geography class is actually a clandestine one: The students are all girls in Afghanistan taking remote classes from their homes thanks to the work of a Canadian non-governmental organization.
Since retaking control of the country in 2021, the Taliban have increasingly blocked access to schooling for girls and women.
A growing list of restrictions spans elementary school through post-secondary, with edicts blocking access beyond Grade 6 and a ban on women in workplaces — including principals and teachers — also disrupting education for girls from Grade 1 onward.
Though some Afghan women and girls fled the country, students who remain are top of mind for many people worldwide, including Canadians supporting their efforts to continue learning.
"It's a risky job and we're very careful about this.... [My students] face danger because they are not allowed," said A., the Afghan instructor teaching the virtual geography class from outside the country. CBC News is not disclosing her full name, nor that of her students, to protect their safety.
"I love my people," the teacher said. "That's why I [joined] this program: to teach them. To do something for them."
The value of education isn't lost on her students, who share that they're still dreaming of careers in such fields as medicine, engineering, computer science and aviation.
"We are studying for the future, and we hope the situation [in Afghanistan] changes and we would be able to work for this country," said M., one of the Grade 7 students. "If the girls are educated, in the future the society will be educated."
Without schooling for girls, "we won't have any power in the future," said B., her classmate. "We would like to take this risk to be educated and to build Afghanistan, because this country needs us."
Parents make 'sacrifices' for girls' education
Having seen the strides young women have made since the Taliban was last in government 20 years earlier, many Afghans are dedicated to ensuring girls continue learning, said Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), an NGO with chapters in various provinces.
"Families recognize that this is the way out of poverty, that you really need education to make something of yourself in the world," Oates said from Vancouver.
"We're always so amazed at hearing these stories of women, mothers, fathers making sacrifices to get girls in school under the circumstances."
Over the past 20 years, CW4WAfghan tapped into the internet infrastructure that was rapidly established across Afghanistan, using virtual technology to train Afghan teachers and share a trove of educational resources.
More recently, staff were developing a new sister site of online courses — like the ones offered by many international universities and colleges — for older students seeking to boost their higher education qualifications.
After the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, to the Taliban in August 2021, the group urgently pivoted to a new effort: continuing girls' learning through online classes. Primary and secondary students now log in for live lessons with educators, complete and submit assignments and write exams online to move onto the next grade. The schedule follows that of a regular school year.
"The longer someone stays out of school, the less likely they are to ever go back to school and gain all the benefits that come from completing one's education," Oates said, adding that the goal "is just to keep everyone learning, no matter the circumstances in the country. And we're reaching both Afghans in Afghanistan, but also displaced Afghans."
Over time, more online school offerings and alternative learning initiatives — many started by Afghans in the diaspora — are blossoming in what's becoming a somewhat busy space. Amid the ongoing crisis for female students, Oates said, she's hopeful that there will be more positive developments.
"This may spur innovation in access to education for everyone: for girls and women and the whole Afghan population, for people with disabilities and other challenges," Oates said.
Canadian schools encouraged to ease barriers
CW4WAfghan has also been working to quickly match Afghan post-secondary students with Canadian schools — an avenue given greater impetus since the Taliban extended restrictions to that sector in late 2022, beginning with its ban on women studying at the university level in December.
"We weren't asking universities to [start] new programs or start new scholarships, but to look at their existing resources and ask, 'What can we do in response to this crisis?'" Oates said.
"We might not see the change that we want to see in Afghanistan ... in our lifetimes, but the work that we're doing now will make a big difference in the future. It's like planting a seed for a tree to grow."
Carolyn Watters, a professor emeritus and a former provost at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was among the Canadian academics moved to act. Over the past few months, the retired computer science professor, now based in Victoria, has helped develop a toolkit for Canadian institutions to support Afghan women pursuing or continuing post-secondary studies.
Her suggestions range from adapting current programs to thinking differently about existing offerings. A school may already have a policy accepting students transferring under unusual or extreme circumstances, for instance, or scholarships for international students in need.
They may already be streaming online courses to students located abroad. These measures could include Afghan women as well — if the students know about it, Watters said.
Watters also encourages easing barriers for Afghan women now applying to Canadian institutions, whether it be through waived application fees, creating bursaries for living expenses (which further support beyond academic scholarships), improved access to English-language classes if needed and a fresh look at transferring course credits or partial degrees from Afghanistan to the Canadian context.
"If the universities and colleges have capacity and [Afghan] women have needs, how do you make that connection? We need to make these things align a lot better," Watters said.
Spreading the word of these opportunities through partnerships — such as with NGOs like CW4WAfghan — is essential to ensure efficient uptake, she said.
"We need to kind of step up because two years from now, we will have lost a huge generation of people who want to learn."
'Life means nothing without freedom'
Grade 12 student Razia Arifi, a member of the Hazara ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan, fled the country with her cousins in 2021. Adjusting to a new language and life in Toronto was difficult after the trauma of leaving behind her parents and a sibling, she said.
Still, Arifi said she knows her parents had her future and well-being in mind. The active teen has always been happiest going to the gym ("which was forbidden and taboo for girls" in Afghanistan, she said), talking about sports or cycling outside.
"They prefer that if I go somewhere ... it's better to be somewhere else [where] I can be happy and still I can continue my education," the 18-year-old said, adding that physics and astronomy are her favourite subjects at school.
"Life means nothing without freedom," Arifi said. "When I'm thinking about [Afghan girls back at home], I think that now that I'm here and I have a big chance, I should try to work hard. I should try to do something, so that one day if I go back, I might be able to help some of them."
With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Furkan Khan