The IRC's Wahida Furmoli - who fled Afghanistan as a refugee and returned this year as a teacher and aid worker - addressed the American Federation of Teacher's human rights luncheon in Las Vegas, Nevada on Tuesday.
"The doors of education are finally open to Afghan girls who visualize their futures as bright and fruitful," Furmoli told the audience of fellow educators.
"I was afraid the impact of the Taliban would have altered Afghan people's perceptions and value of women and education, but thankfully the opposite has happened," she said. "Afghans are now clearer than ever on the importance of education for women."
Furmoli and her family fled Kabul in the early 1990s when their home was destroyed by rocket fire. They joined the exodus of Afghan refugees seeking safety in Pakistan.
Once in Pakistan, nearly all the family's resources went to school fees for the children. Furmoli went to classes in the morning, taught primary school for younger children in the afternoons, embroidered to earn extra money, and studied English in the remaining hours of the day. She later enrolled in medical college for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but the institution was shut- down by Pakistani authorities before she could complete her degree.
In 1999, Furmoli began working for the IRC's education program for Afghan refugee children and women and has since dedicated her life to ensuring that Afghan girls have opportunities for a quality education and that women play a prominent role in Afghanistan's future education system.
The IRC program in Pakistan runs dozens of schools for Afghan children - 71 percent of which are girls. The program has also trained over 1,000 female teachers, many of whom are now returning to Afghanistan to establish schools.
"During the suppression by the Taliban, Afghan women made superhuman efforts to educate their daughters in secret home schools, some of which were self-supported and others were aided by organizations such as the IRC," she said. "Many of these brave women were caught and beaten by the Taliban. Now we are happy that those years of repression are over."
However, Furmoli said Afghan educators face a daunting task in resurrecting the country's destroyed education infrastructure. She said schools are almost non-existent, materials are scarce and there is a tremendous dearth of trained teachers.
"If a stable and peaceful civil society is to be established - where the rights of Afghan women, especially to education, are to be permanently restored - world organizations should step forward with their support for the restoration of education in Afghanistan," she said. "We need women's empowerment programs that focus on and are delivered through education. There are thousands of other young women like myself who can prove to be the energy required for the reconstruction of our country."
Nina Papadopoulos, who oversees the IRC's education programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also addressed the conference and described the last seven months as an exciting time of opportunity for women and girls.
"Parents are more eager now than ever before to send their children to school," Papadopoulos said. "They see education as a vehicle out of a predominant culture of revenge and we are challenged with the task of helping them realize their dreams by working with them to create quality education programming in line with the national agenda for education."
Papadopoulos also thanked the American Federation of Teachers for supporting the IRC's education programs for Afghans and said the IRC looks forward to continued collaboration in teacher training and capacity-building initiatives.
She stressed the critical need to keep education high on the agenda for policy makers in Afghanistan and world capitols, as well as to secure international aid to fund medium and long- term efforts in the education sector.
"It is both a pleasure and honor to be with you here today.
I have been working with the International Rescue Committee on education in for Afghans for the past two and a half years. IRC has a long-standing reputation supporting quality education programs for Afghans dating back to the 1980's. Beginning in 1985 IRC began work with Afghan refugees supporting programs to strengthen services in secondary education, English language training, curriculum and material development for secondary students and teachers, teacher training programs as well as training in computer literacy. Currently IRC supports a large refugee education program in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and a community based education program in central and eastern Afghanistan. Our fundamental goal during the time of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan was to train a cadre of female professionals in the education sector who would eventually contribute for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We are happy that this time has come sooner than we thought.
The last seven months has been a fascinating time, as opportunities have opened up for girls and women - we continue to be challenged with keeping education high on the agenda for policy makers both inside and outside of Afghanistan as well as getting international aid to fund medium to long term efforts in the education sector.
As Wahida mentioned, parents are eager now more than even to send their children to school. They see education as a vehicle out of a predominant culture of revenge - we are challenged with the task of helping them to realize their dreams by working with them to create quality education programming in line with the national agenda for education.
Earlier this year, AFT's International Affairs Director David Dorn came to visit us to explore opportunities for future collaboration. We are thrilled about this and are looking into possibilities to work together to improve approaches to teacher training and capacity building within the education sector. I was very impressed with the technical expertise and depth of experience within AFTs membership. The IRC looks forward to learning from this experience and improving our approaches in Afghanistan together.
Thank you again for having us here."
Edward Bligh (New York, HQ) (212) 551-3114
Melissa Winkler (New York, HQ) (212)
Kenneth Burslem (Afghanistan) 92-91-43574
Avril Pendergast-Fischer (New York, HQ)