Aqeela Asifi's story: How one woman convinced a community to get girls in school

Aqeela Asifi is a teacher. When she and her family ended up in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1992 after fleeing the civil war in Afghanistan, she was shocked at what she found.

None of the girls went to school. So she changed that. 23 years later, she’s educated more than 1,000 refugee girls and because of her work, she’s been awarded UNHCR’s prestigious 2015 Nansen Refugee Award. Here, she describes how she convinced a whole community that educating girls was worthwhile and shares how she went about changing minds.

As a 26-year-old teacher, moving from Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul to a refugee camp in rural Pakistan was a whole new world for me. What shocked me the most was that girls weren’t allowed to go to school. Education is a basic human right, and here girls were being denied their rights.

The fear of independence bars many girls from going to school. The root cause is ignorance.

So I decided to do something about it, and the best place to start was by convincing the community elders that girls should be educated. It wasn’t easy. I had to confront the community’s objections and address their fears. Here’s how I went about shifting perceptions of girls’ education in this traditional society.

Understand the community

Culture and tradition dictated that girls stay at home with their families before growing up to be good wives and mothers. In their eyes, education wasn’t important because taking care of a family doesn’t require it.

The parents themselves were deprived of an education so they didn’t see the value of educating their children. It’s more valuable for them when their children are engaged in income-generating activities rather than “wasting their time” going to school.

There’s another perception that an educated girl could become independent and demand her rights, which in this society is unacceptable. The fear of independence bars many girls from going to school. The root cause is ignorance. A father or brother who has been educated himself would never perceive their educated daughter or sister as a threat.

Social norms are passed on from one generation to the other. Sometimes they are so deep-rooted that no one dares to challenge them. Fear of change is also to blame.

One of the answers to this is to have more positive female role models. Girls and women who have achieved high distinctions, but still respect their families and culture, could be agents for change.

Address their concerns

At the camp society was very traditional and culture-bound. They were not ready to agree to anything that they felt was in contradiction with their tribal norm. To understand how to address the community’s concerns I started by speaking with my own family. Then I had to convince the community elders, who were the decision makers. It required a lot of discussion and negotiations.

The girls I taught 20 years ago now send their daughters to my school, so I’m teaching the second generation of my students.

I set up a makeshift classroom in my own house at first so girls wouldn’t have to walk long distances to go to school, and it provided a safe, homely environment. I developed two different courses: basic literacy, and the other around Islamic studies and home economics.

Teaching Islamic studies was an important breakthrough. The majority of the people in the camp were Muslim who could read common Arabic verses for prayers, but who didn’t understand the meaning of the language. I started teaching girls the meaning of the Arabic verses, and this impressed the parents because they hadn’t even realised all the meaning behind the verses.

Now we teach Afghan cultural and religious studies plus foreign languages and mathematics.

Don't give up

When I began, I didn’t expect the school to last more than a year or two.

I started with only 12 girls, and to my surprise those girls would talk about their lessons to their cousins and sisters. Gradually, more and more parents began to think they should at least give it a try for their own daughters.

I knew something significant had shifted when those very parents who once were opposed to girls’ education started sending their daughters to my school.

Change is slow. Twenty years ago, I knew families who were very strong opponents of girls’ education. Today those same parents come to me to ask where their daughters can go to school after the eighth grade, which is the level that schools in the camp finish. They want their daughters to continue their education and become something. That is quite remarkable.

The change has also been tangible. What started out as lessons in my home turned into schooling in a tent. Now we have a dedicated school building, and teach up to secondary school level.

Change is also transferred from one generation to the next. The girls I taught 20 years ago now send their daughters to my school, so I’m teaching the second generation of my students. I take great pride in this. The first generation is now determined that their children should have better facilities. Those girls who could only finish eighth grade want more for their daughters.

Respect culture

Every culture has its own positives and negatives. If girls are denied an education, find out why. If the reasons are cultural, respect their culture and come up with something innovativethat won’t be perceived as a threat. Keep their values in mind and come up withsolutions that are acceptable within that community. Once they see the positive impact of what you’re doing, you will receive more supportand respect.

Don’t be overambitious by setting goals that are too high. Start with humble targets. Maybe one or two people. If you succeed in educating one person in a better way, then that’s an achievement. That person may educate two or three more, and those three could be multiplied by four, and so on.

When I see positive changes in the mindset of people it gives me hope. Despite there being so many challenges, there’s still a way forward and we can make it. 

All photos by S. Rich for UNHCR.