FORWARD OPERATING BASE MUSA QAL'EH, AFGHANISTAN
FORWARD OPERATING BASE MUSA QAL'EH, Helmand province, Afghanistan - Afghanistan harbors a harsh environment where street smarts are more common than a formal education, especially for women. Many skills that are learned from experience can be the difference between life and death, but with limited formal education, the society can only advance so far.
The Marines with Female Engagement Teams 10 and 12 held their first literacy class for Afghan women in the Musa Qal’eh District, Aug. 2. The class, held in the district’s women’s center, is intended to teach local women basic principles of reading, writing and arithmetic.
“We had about 26 girls show up for reading and writing classes,” said Pfc. Brandie Hogan, a FET member and Spavanaw, Okla., native. “They’re learning their letters, how to count right and how to identify their numbers.”
The effect of teaching women in Musa Qal’eh to be literate is to help them understand the world around them. They can read posted public advisories, learn how to care for an ailment from text or simply leave a note for themselves.
The classes being taught are the equivalent to what would be taught in an American preschool class. They are currently learning their native alphabet and numbers, working up to basic spelling and mathematics.
“This is baby steps,” said Hogan, a 2009 graduate of Huntington High School in Shreveport, La. “This is the first step in getting women here educated. At this point we would be happy to have them be able to read simple sentences like ‘hello, how are you?’ in Pashto. We want them to be able to read their own names.”
The school is a small attachment, sharing a wall with Forward Operating Base Musa Qal’eh District Center. The structure is nothing more than three small walls jutting from the FOB and doubles as the women’s center when the school hours are out. A grand opening was held July 31 for the newly completed structure.
The classes are taught by the interpreter for FET 12 who has been nicknamed “Oprah” by the Marines she works with. Women are introduced to the classes at health initiatives held in the woman’s center every Wednesday.
Women attending school is a new and somewhat radical idea for the people of Musa Qal’eh. Traditionally, many women live secluded lives where they are sheltered from outside influences. The women’s responsibilities lie in taking care of their husband and family within the household. According to Hogan, they are not permitted to go to the bazaar (market place) or, in most cases, anywhere outside their houses without their husbands accompanying them.
“These women have faced many adversities,” said Sgt. Habiba Abida, the team leader of FET 12, and an Arlington, Va., native. “Their lives are based off fear. The men put this sense of fear in them. This is not every Afghan man, there are men who support and encourage their wives, but many don’t.”
According to the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative Website, the literacy rate for young women, aged 15 to 24, is 18 percent while 50 percent of boys are literate. The primary school completion rate for boys is 32 percent, versus a 13 percent completion rate for girls.
Approximately 20 to 30 students between the ages of six and 14 have been arriving to the three classes for two-hour lessons each week. The class was originally intended for adolescent children, but the increasing presence of adult women peaked the need for an additional class.
The center alternates days the schooling, offering courses to the children one day and the adults the following day. The segregation of the classes caters to the needs of the older generation who are so far detached from having to obtain or retain any new knowledge, said Abida, a 2003 graduate of Wakefield High School..
“[The children’s] mothers show up and some of them sit there with notebooks and try to learn how to read and write, but they tell us this is difficult for them because they have never done it before,” Hogan said. “The older women don’t have as much confidence in learning how to read and write as the young women do.”
In the district of Now Zad, just west of Musa Qal’eh, there has been a women’s school for approximately a year. The women of the area are less oppressed and many more enjoy the freedom to gain an education, according to Hogan. The literacy difference between the two districts has provided solid verification to the impact it has on the women’s lives.
The freedom that develops with an education drastically changes a person’s life, especially in Afghanistan. The women have a better understanding of the area that surrounds them and are less intimidated by the pressures of their societal structure, said Hogan.
“The women in Now Zad will allow you to simply take their picture,” said Hogan, who has served several months in the Now Zad District. “But the women here freak out if they see a camera. They feel like they have a little bit more freedoms in Now Zad. If we were to go and say, ‘hey do you want to do these adult literacy classes’, we would probably have 40 to 50 women show up every time we had a class. Here we would have more like six.”
The process is slow and troublesome. However, it is the beginning of something bigger, helping to rouse the minds of the population.
“This is something that needs to go on,” Hogan said. “They need to learn to write Pashto and use proper grammar. Getting a school formed would be a huge long term goal for this area.”
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This work, Female Marines launch first Musa Qal’eh woman’s school, by Cpl Clayton Vonderahe, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.