This week Afghan students return to the classroom after more than six months out of school because of COVID-19. For us at Sahar, this back-to-school season marks the beginning of a new phase of COVID-19 response.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education first closed schools in March 2020. Since then, through the work of our implementing field partner, we began operating our programs remotely via WhatsApp. Our Men as Partners in Change Program and Early Marriage Prevention Program delivered course-specific training while also sharing information about how students could keep themselves, their families, their communities safe in light of the pandemic. In addition to adopting a remote model of programming, we also distributed care packages with COVID-19 necessities like hand soap and face masks to students and local community members. Responding to the immediate needs of the community of Mazar-i-Sharif was important because many of the communities we serve do not have access to the resources necessary to respond to the pandemic.
As schools reopen, we continue to reach the girls we work with by phone, WhatsApp groups, and peer-to-peer contact. The teachers involved in our programs are working with school administrators to ensure the healthy and safe return of girls to school. Through our MPC program, we have access to mosque leaders, community leaders, fathers, and boys in schools, all of whom we are encouraging to send their daughters and sisters back to school. Sahar’s field officers are resuming our programs cautiously and keeping girls’ health a priority.
Looking forward, addressing gender inequality is fundamental to recovering from the pandemic. In Afghanistan, there is a high likelihood that many girls will not return to school after missing almost half the year. There are also growing concerns that girls are at a higher risk of early marriage due to their families’ financial struggles. These challenges make continuing our gender-responsive work all the more important. COVID-19 has and continues to deepen existing gender inequalities and, as an organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities for girls, we must work to ensure that the future looks bright for Afghan girls despite the pandemic.
Although addressing gender disparities is a definitive challenge of COVID-19 response, it is also an opportunity. If our work has shown us anything, it is that girls are an invaluable resource to their families, communities, and countries. By promoting the right of girls to receive an education (even and especially within a pandemic), we are promoting the development of a peaceful and resilient Afghanistan.
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