It is no myth that many girls in Afghanistan face conditions of illiteracy, limited opportunities for education, and insufficient health care. Anyone who watches the daily news is aware that the little schooling these girls do receive is obtained by walking several miles in blistering desert sun or other extreme weather conditions. Even then, their instructions are often religion-based and taught by inexperienced faculty with inadequate school supplies. Indeed, Afghan girls are among the most ill-treated in the world.
So what is an average Buffalo resident to do about this, an entire 6,733 miles away from Afghanistan’s capital city?
That’s what 15-year-old Clotilde Dedecker asked herself in the summer of 2002. After seeing the plight of countless young Afghans, she founded the Coalition of Girls’ Schools with the goal of building and maintaining schools for underprivileged girls in Afghanistan. Six years later, the Coalition is going strong, and Dedecker is a junior at Harvard with a new organization: the Circle of Women. This new group started by ambitious college students is striving to provide educational advancements in third world countries around the globe, starting with one Dedecker knows well — Afghanistan.
“The Circle of Women is a non-profit organization recognized by the IRS,” said Dedecker. “We work to promote women’s education in developing countries and the way in which we do that is by coordinating school instruction programs and fundraising for those projects. Also, we fundraise for those schools once they’ve been constructed, for school supplies, salaries if that’s necessary depending on the project, or training programs for the teachers.”
It’s been less than a year since the Circle of Women received non-profit status, and the group already is making great strides.
“Our first project is Project Wonkhai which is well over halfway finished. It consists of building a two story secondary school for girls in the Wankhai village of Afghanistan, which is 80 miles outside Kabul,” said Dedecker. “There are 726 girls ready to attend, which shows a lot of enthusiasm.”
BBC World Service Trust Project reports that the Taliban banned education for all females in the years 1996 to 2001, while simultaneously destroying schools and restricting teachers’ curricula. In a case study on Afghans’ right to education, the endeavor claims Afghanistan has “one of the poorest education records in the world.” The Circle of Women hopes to ameliorate these issues.
Haydee Izaguirre attended Nardin with Dedecker at the inception of the Coalition of Girls’ Schools, when it was “just a little club that was allotted 45 minutes of homeroom time.” She says that the Circle of Women chose Afghanistan for its first venture because of its dismal education statistics.
“Thirty-five percent of students are girls in Afghanistan, and if you think about it, that’s pretty low. Right now, enrollment in schools has been growing, but not quick enough for girls,” said Izaguirre. “There are about 9000 schools in Afghanistan, and one third of them are only for boys. Boys are getting their chance, so should girls.”
Anthony Agnello served his Peace Corps duty in Afghanistan more than three decades ago and has been active in the country’s affairs ever since. He’s involved with various organizations that aid Afghan educational pursuits, including Friends of Afghanistan, Schools of the Futures, and Orchard Park High School’s Educational Outreach, where he also teaches biological sciences. As someone who has twice visited post-9/11 Afghanistan, he sees female education as the sole area where the U.S-led coalition is making advancements, and has even more potential to grow.
“There are many failures related to the United States military intervention in Afghanistan. Too few troops to accomplish the mission, limited resources brought to the Afghan people, uncertain goals of both military and political nature and no clear exit strategy. That said, one bright spot in many Afghan regions and provinces is that a vital educational opportunity has reemerged since the defeat of the Taliban,” Agnello said. “I had the opportunity to re-visit Afghanistan in 2003 and in 2006. The only place where I saw progress between 2003 and 2006 was in the field of education with hundreds of new schools open and a sincere effort on the part of Afghan and Western forces to provide gender equity opportunity.”
Already, Agnello estimates that schools built and maintained in Afghanistan by Western New York efforts have provided educational opportunities for 15,000 Afghan girls. OPHS Educational Outreach has only a “loose advisory alliance” with the Circle of Women, but Agnello is going to try to work with them more closely on upcoming initiatives.
Izaguirre knows that any foundation that deals with monetary donations presents a “very delicate situation,” but the Circle of Women does everything in its power to remain a legitimate organization with no hidden agendas or secret use of money. For starters, Dedecker and her co-founders underwent several measures to ensure that the school in Wonkhai was set up in the most legitimate way possible.
“The school is supported by the village elders, and families see this as legitimate. They’ve been sending their kids to school in this area for a while,” said Izaguirre. “We have a local contractor and we have a community leader who takes care of the school and keeps the school safe.” Some girls will be walking 45 minutes to attend this school; luckily both Izaguirre and Dedecker claim that this particular region of Afghanistan is secure enough where safety should not be an issue.
In addition, the Circle of Women has taken copious measures to optimize the learning time of students. Teachers are locally recruited and selected by a council of elders, and the Circle of Women plans on paying for a several month training program for them. Meanwhile, they plan to keep religion out of classroom instruction.
“It’s a school recognized by the Afghan national government so they set the curriculum which is supposedly secular. Religion is not incorporated at any step in the process. We hope to maintain that,” said Dedecker. “That being said, we need to be sensitive to cultural wants and needs, and find the balance between what we perceive in the United States as secular school and what they perceive in Afghanistan as a secular school. But technically, it’s not religiously affiliated, by any means.”
“We’re not trying to instill Western standards or anything by those means, either,” adds Izaguirre.
The Circle of Women has held a variety of fundraising events, including a cocktail party in New York City which raised over $3,000 in one night. Dedecker emphasizes that this money, as well as the $85,000 they’ve raised in total, is being spent in the most efficient and resourceful ways possible.
“We have a specific construction coordinator who is Afghan and lives part time in the United States, travels to Afghanistan, and has all different projects to promote vocational centers. She has vast experience, and she does negotiation with contractors on our behalf,” Dedecker said. “Afghanistan is very much an area of bargaining culture. This can sometimes work to our advantage, and it’s just a matter of staying on top of what’s going on at the ground, constant photo documentation, and having other ground sources as regular contacts to keep an eye on the project.”
Since the organization is named Circle of Women, each chapter is considered a “circumference.” There is currently a circumference running at Canisius and Izaguirre is trying to get the word out and start a circumference at the University of Buffalo. As part of Dedecker’s Coalition of All Girls’ Schools, she has years of experience in creating awareness, planning events, and fundraising for similar causes. She hopes to bring that to UB.
“In Venezuela, where I’m from, a lot of people complain about the political situation. I turn to them and ask, ‘Did you vote? If you didn’t vote, you have no right to complain,’” said Izaguirre. “If you have a chance to change something, do it. The Circle of Women presents a great opportunity to turn a lot of bad things around.”
Although the Circle of Women is facing struggles with the Student Association regarding its attempts to become a chartered SA club, Izaguirre remains hopeful.
“We sell these bracelets from Afghan cloth, and they have an Afghan proverb ‘Drop by drop you make a river’ inscribed in Pashto. You don’t create an organization overnight, just like drop by drop you make a river,” said Izaguirre.
Indeed, small efforts can sometimes yield big results. Agnello describes a scenario where a school in Kabul had no water supply, leaving thousands of students without classes. A small donation built a well, and the day the well was activated, school re-opened. “For about $1,500 we provided an educational opportunity for 3,000 kids,” Agnello remarked.
This is why his latest project is called the Starfish initiative. The name derives from an old parable about a young boy who systematically throws starfish that have been pushed onto the shore by high tide, one by one, into the sea so they don’t dehydrate and die. An old man approaches the boy and says that his mission is futile, as countless starfish remain on the beach and it’s impossible for him to throw them all back. The boy throws another starfish into the sea, turns to the old man and says, “I made a difference for that one.”
By donating time, money, or just raising awareness, hopefully UB will soon see the value of throwing starfish back into the ocean.