Final reflections: STAGES, Afghanistan

12 March 2024 by Project team member

I have worked as a field supervisor for the STAGES project for almost four years. In 2017, I started working as a Project Manager of STAGES-II and LNGB+. I have worked directly in the community, engaging with teachers and students, school management committee members and stakeholders, at the provincial level and national levels. However, I have been involved in the project since 2013: almost 10 years of working in Girls’ Education Challenge programmes in Afghanistan!

The ambition and the delivery
The education situation and access for education to girls in Afghanistan is more vulnerable than any other country in the world. Afghanistan faced decades of war, which deprived many boys and girls from acquiring education in both urban and rural areas. Girls had been deprived of education for many reasons, such as the lack of an adequate number of public schools for girls, the lack of government facilities, the long distance of schools, early marriage, and the unavailability of qualified female teachers. In some areas, the cultural norms prevented girls from going to schools – some girls were married and/or stayed at their homes. The ambition of the STAGES project was to reach the most marginalised girls and enrol and retain them in community-based education, accelerated learning programmes, multi-grade education and lower secondary community-based education classes, and provide them with quality education services. 

Whether it was community-based education classes from Grades 1 to 6, accelerated learning programmes for adolescent girls, lower secondary education or multigrade classes, we had the support of community people, especially school management committees. They were the backbone of our programme because, as influential community people, they were involved in the initial stages, during the implementation and after the project closure.

To counter some of the cultural barriers, we have done lots of community mobilisation through meetings and back-to-school campaigns with the community stakeholders and local authorities, including provincial education departments, district education departments and influential elders. Obtaining their buy-in and agreement to support the programme led to change and commitments from families to send their daughters to school regularly and support them to stay and continue their education. They also ensured that after the project closure these students will transition to the nearest public school to continue their education. Many STAGES students have already completed high school, some have completed colleges and universities, and even some have had jobs. It was a very long journey.

Our scholarship programme supported girls to attend midwifery and nursing colleges and teacher training colleges. Some of them have become teachers, nurses, vaccinators and community health workers – often serving their communities.

The focus of this programme was not only on providing quality education access but also focusing on extracurricular activities such as paraprofessional and life skills training.

Under extracurricular activity, we had peer group activities for developing girls’ leadership skills. The Afghanistan context is very conservative, and many girls do not have the confidence to raise their voices and ask for what they want and need and speak in front of a larger group. Findings from the project evaluations highlighted that girls have found considerable value in peer group and leadership skills activities outside of their classrooms. It improved their respect in the households, improved their motivation and social networking, increased their confidence and willingness to engage in discussions and debates, and speak in front of larger groups. Girls have found greater awareness of appropriate hygiene and health practices and capacity to implement this knowledge in their daily lives and to advocate for their individual needs.

There was a mini library in each class that students could use with resources on leadership (and female leaders). They were also given the chance to be part of a school management committee, raising issues around student safety and security. When I visited some of the classes, I saw a lot of positive changes and improvements at the community level and in the lives of the students. Whenever I asked a question, all the students raised their hands and they were confident to respond to my questions, raise their voices and ask for the continuation of their classes and what they needed. Such improvement was very inspiring for me.

Through the paraprofessional training, we have delivered teaching skills and basic health training for girls. In most communities, there was a huge need for female teachers which was a challenge we wanted to tackle temporarily through these para-professional trainings.

Regime change
Following the regime change, the biggest challenge was the transition of 6th-grade graduate female students to public schools after the project's closeout. Our ambition was to transition students who had completed Grade 6 to continue their education in public schools so they would be able to continue their secondary and higher education. Unfortunately, the government banned female secondary education at the national level. This is beyond our control – but what we could do was document and share all the students’ results sheets with the nearest public schools which we call hub schools in which the CBE classes are registered. In this way, they have a record of our students in case there will be any future opportunities for them to attend and continue their secondary education.

We have explored other alternative transition pathways for the girls, considering the other options available at the community level. What are the girls’ aspirations and needs? Mostly they have requested to have paraprofessional training in teaching skills, basic health education, financial literacy and management skills. Under the financial literacy training, the skills of students have been developed on how to start and run a small business using local resources and opportunities. At this level, they can do something for their families. It is about building the capacity and supporting them to use their talents and knowledge.

We have also supported them to be semi-professional teachers to teach their siblings and others at the community level. They have the knowledge and skills of teaching, and they also have some knowledge of basic health issues like personal and environmental health and hygiene management, how to use first kit materials, and how to provide immediate response to emergency health issues.

One of the biggest legacies of the project is leaving qualified female teachers in remote communities and public schools and a generation of women and girls who are educated. In addition, a structure has been built at the community level through school management committees, responsible for looking after the classes, and advocating for girls’ rights to education. They are volunteers who have taken a sense of ownership. They have been trained in school management, conflict resolution, advocacy, safeguarding child protection and other required school management areas. They can take further responsibility after project closure. If there is an opportunity in the future, they will be looking forward to that.

I have witnessed a lot of progress and significant contributions from these people. They have contributed learning spaces for classes and libraries. They have volunteered their time, visiting and monitoring the classes, addressing the students' related issues, and providing drinkable water for the students. We are sure that this momentum will be maintained.

They are keen for girls to continue their education. We have seen some adolescent girls who were married during the project, but they continued their education. That signifies a commitment from their in-laws who realise the value of education. We have seen SMC members joining with our staff in each province to advocate with the authorities for the reopening of classes.

Personal and organisational impact
For me, one of the greatest takeaways has been working as a consortium with different expertise both national and global expertise. Being involved in GEC and learning from each other was a great experience. Each partner had their expertise in a specific area. We were able to combine our global expertise in various elements of education programming (technical education, protection, peer groups, etc.), contextualise this to Afghanistan, and develop a comprehensive programme that we delivered altogether.

In addition, we faced lots of challenges throughout this programme including security challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic, and regime change. We have learned a lot. For example: during the COVID-19 pandemic, we came together to think about alternative pathways for girls, like home-based study, providing home-based material for the students, how to reach them through phone calls, and how to monitor through WhatsApp groups or other available means of communication.

There will always be challenges and obstacles, especially in the fragile context of Afghanistan, but there is also a solution if we think creatively.

As an organisation, the lessons learned and experience we have gained through the GEC programme will be utilised for other education programmes or opportunities in Afghanistan. We have learned a lot because it was a very big portfolio and a long journey. It was a big project covering almost 16 provinces of Afghanistan. According to the current context and requirements of authorities, moving forward the main part of INGO's responsibility in the education sector is shifted from direct programme implementation to building the capacity of the local partners who will be there to continue the work to provide quality education services to the most marginalised people of Afghanistan.

Read the Final Reflections Summary here