Educate a woman, educate a nation

“During the war, houses were like prisons for women. They couldn’t go out – they were not aware or engaged in anything.”

Uzra Lali was one of the 88% of Afghani women who cannot read and write, having never been able to access education. Illiteracy was a huge problem in her life: she could not help her children with their studies, or read information about dosage and timings when she took medicine. “In hospital, I couldn’t read which room belonged to the eye specialist, or the dentist, or the general physician.”

From education to businesswoman

She attended our nine-month literacy course in 2011, where she learned to read and write, as well as receiving health and skills training. “Now, there are a lot of changes in my life,” the 32-year-old mother of five told us. “I can help my children with their studies, as well as managing my small business.”

Uzra is a testament to the transformative power of education, and the ripple effect that comes from empowering just one person. She now employs 48 women from Bamyan, producing hand-embroidered bags, cushion covers, prayer mats, clothes and soft toys. These are then sold in the local market, allowing almost 50 women to earn a decent living and support their families – and most of them are so passionate about the way education has changed their lives, they are using their new-found earnings to send their children to school too.

Uzra, who learned to read and write through Islamic Relief's education programme for women in Afghanistan, now employs nearly 50 local women in her handicraft business

Uzra shows her employees how to stitch the handmade bags

For Uzra’s family, this income has been particularly crucial, since her husband Hamid was so badly beaten during a year in a Taliban jail that he is now in chronic pain. This disability has left him unable to do manual labour, the usual form of work for men in their area. By working together in partnership, the husband and wife are now able to provide for their family – Hamid is the salesman for her handicrafts at the market.

Fears for the future

However, Uzra fears that the troops’ withdrawal in 2014 will cause war to break out again, placing women back in the same difficulties they faced before. “Now, women have the freedom to study and learn. The workshops enable them to work in future, to study and serve society. If peace is in place, the young generation can study, and improvements will take place.”

Two of Uzra’s daughters have particularly blossomed in recent years. Huma, aged 15, has recently been elected head of the children’s council for the entire province of Bamyan, with two boys as her assistants. Uzra is her role model, and the inspiration behind her ambition to become a doctor: “I am proud of my mother’s achievements, helping other people to earn an income – I want to work for the people as she does.”

Mahnaz, aged nine, is delighted that her mother can help her with her studies now that she can read and write. English is her favourite subject, and she dreams of becoming a poet. Like Uzra, she is afraid that conflict might break out again, being too young to have witnessed any in her lifetime. “There should be peace in our country,” she told us, “I’m afraid of war.”

Uzra, who learned to read through Islamic Relief's education programme for women in Afghanistan, and her daughter Mahnaz

Uzra and Mahnaz

‘Women are a gift from God’

Islamic Relief’s education programme for women in Bamyan features in our latest report, Afghanistan in Limbo. Women are taught either in local mosques or in large rooms within the women’s houses. This enables us to empower them without the added pressure of having to travel, which can be difficult due to cultural norms or security concerns – and so far, we’ve taught over 1,800 women to read and write.

Uzra’s story, and hundreds more like hers, are proof of the African proverb: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” However, we prefer the way Uzra puts it: “Women are a gift from God.”

International aid to Afghanistan has already dropped by around 40% in the last two years. If it continues to fall after the troops’ withdrawal this year, thousands of women like Uzra will lose access to the education that can create such a powerful transformation for them and their families.

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