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The first graduating class of the Zabuli Education Center. (Beth Murphy)

Ray of hope

One U.S. woman’s vision is changing the lives of girls in rural Afghanistan

By Daniela Petrova on March 14, 2016

Afghanistan has the highest gender disparity in primary education in the world, and girls from poor rural families are the least likely to go to school. Estimates suggest just four percent of such girls complete their primary education. But for girls in Deh’Subz district, there is a ray of hope. Behind it is Afghan native Razia Jan, founder of the Massachusetts-based Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation.

Jan returned to her home country to start the Zabuli Education Center, a private, all-girls K-12 school in Deh’Subz district, a cluster of conservative villages 30 miles outside Kabul. Launched in 2008, a year when the Taliban killed nearly 150 teachers, students, and school employees, the school has managed to thrive, providing free education to more than 480 girls — 75 percent of whom live on less than $1 a day.

The Zabuli Education Center reached an important milestone last fall when the first class graduated. “You are the living image of the dream I had,” Jan told the students.

One of the proud graduates that day was Yalda. Engaged in ninth grade, she’d married in the summer before her senior year. Her passion and hard work had won her husband’s support to continue her studies. “Today I know that anyone who has a strong faith in doing something can do it,” she said. “I am a living example.”

But the graduation presented a new challenge: where would the women continue their studies? Even if parents could afford it, they would never consider sending their daughters away to college in Kabul.

To make her graduates’ dreams come true, Jan, who’s become known as the “Mother of Deh’Subz,” raised $120,000 on Indiegogo to build a college for them in the village. That very idea would have been unthinkable eight years earlier, when Jan first opened the Zabuli Education Center. Every step of the way, she’d encountered resistance from parents and village elders who worried that their daughters would be corrupted with rebellious ideas. But when the construction of the women’s college began in August 2015, one of the students’ fathers laid the first stone for the foundation.

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Opening in 2016, the Razia Jan Institute will be the first free, private women’s community college in rural Afghanistan. “These first graduates who are now going on to our college are paving the way,” Jan said. “They’re showing the whole village what can happen when a girl is educated.”

The college will offer a two-year program in nursing and midwifery, and has plans to expand the curriculum to include computer science and English. Graduates will be able to work in schools, businesses, government, and health care. “Once families see that their daughters can make an income, they won’t be so focused on getting them engaged and married when they are 13, 14, and 15 years old,” Jan said.

Eighteen women have signed up to become midwives, in an area where there are no female health workers. As part of their training, midwifery students will work alongside doctors and midwives in the new medical clinic part of the college.

“Mother of Deh’Subz” Razia Jan (R) with high school graduate Yalda, who married in the summer before her senior year. (Beth Murphy)

“So many families can’t afford to go to the city to see the doctor,” said Shakira, who is enrolled in the course. “One of our classmates died this year, and I wonder if she could have been saved if there had been someone to help her sooner.”

In two years, Shakira just may be that person. “I can’t believe I have this opportunity,” she said. “I feel like this is my moment to do something special in the world.”

Shakira, Yalda and their classmates are profiled in the documentary film, What Tomorrow Brings, directed by Beth Murphy and scheduled to premiere on May 3, 2016 at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.


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