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Education in Afghanistan: Breaking traditional barriers

Yalda’s Education & Engagement from Principle Pictures.

“My name is Yalda.”

In 2007, ten-year old Yalda began her education in fourth grade, when the first free private girls’ school opened in village outside Kabul, Afghanistan where she lived. Like many schoolgirls, Yalda was ambitious wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a translator and helping Afghans communicate with Americans . She was the second best performing student in her class, and had the drive to succeed in all of her lessons. However, this all threatened to come to an abrupt halt when Yalda turned 15 and was told that she was to marry her mother’s cousin.

In Afghanistan, over 30% of girls are married off before the age of 18. The legal age for marriage is 16, or as low as 15 with parental consent. However poverty, lack of choices for girls such as education, as well as tradition, all drive the practice.  Since the end of the Taliban rule in 2001, some attempts to reduce child marriage numbers in the country have been made, such as the commitment to SAIEVAC (the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children). However, Afghan girls are yet to see the implementation of the endorsed National Action Plan for Elimination of Early and Child Marriage. Cases of child marriage remain a common practice, and Yalda’s story speaks for thousands of girls.

Knowing that marriage was inevitable, Yalda agreed to the engagement on one condition; she could continue her education. Contrary to tradition, both her parents and her husband-to-be agreed to her request, enabling her to continue with her studies – something that so many girls in Yalda’s position are unable to do.

 “He is my mother’s cousin, [but] they are allowing me to continue my education, and possibly go to college. Because they are allowing me to study, I agreed to the engagement.”

The longer Yalda was engaged, the more likely she would get married and be unable to stay in school.  But she had an idea:  She requested permission from the school founder, Razia Jan, to skip a year to reach graduation sooner. Jan agreed and helped Yalda and her classmates study for the extra exams needed to skip ahead.  Yalda and six of her friends passed the exam, and the seven of them became the Class of 2015 – the first graduating class in the history of the school.

Yalda at her graduation ceremony. | Photo credit: Principle Pictures

Yalda at her graduation ceremony. | Photo credit: Principle Pictures

When Yalda got married at the beginning of her senior year, worries rose again that she would be unable to graduate.  She now had to organise her studies around married life and expected pressure to start a family.  But Yalda is a young woman of many firsts, and she was not only the first girl to get engaged and stay in this school, but also the first to get married and continue.

“When I see my situation, my forced engagement, my school, my community… I tolerate everything and say to myself that if a person can get an education, they can go on to be successful in all aspects of life.”

Education remains a vital factor in reducing child marriage numbers worldwide. Girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children compared to girls who have little or no education. Though Yalda became engaged whilst attending school, she didn’t give up on her dreams.

On graduation day Jan gave an emotional speech, congratulating Yalda for staying in school despite the challenges, and for continuing her studies through to secondary school.  Education, Jan believes, should be a natural part of every girl’s childhood.

Yalda was lucky enough to have a family who supported her so she could  continue her education. Many girls of Yalda’s age are not as fortunate. Access to education and freedom of choice should be a right, not a privilege. Yet for so many girls around the world this choice simply does not exist.

This year, aged 19, Yalda plans to study nursing in college despite the fact that she is a child bride. She hopes that her education will enable her to get a good job in her chosen career.

Yalda’s story shows just how important education is in empowering young girls and giving them the opportunity to shape their own future. Girls are capable of excelling and exceeding the expectations prescribed to them by years of tradition.

Now is the time for girls to be allowed to flourish and develop their own paths. Paths in which marriage is seen as an option, not a compulsion.

What Tomorrow Brings,” the documentary featuring Razia and the girls’ school airs on PBS’s POV series October 31st and is available for educational and international screenings.  It is directed/produced by Beth Murphy, the Director of Films at The GroundTruth Project and founder of Principle Pictures