It is a bright and chilly morning in the remote district of Jakawlang in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province.A wood-burning stove keeps the classroom warm and cosy despite the lack of desks and chairs.
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Twenty-two female students sit on the floor of Jakawlang's Central Girls High School, participating in a pilot project that aims to boost female education in Afghanistan. While still attending school themselves – the girls are all in their last or second-to-last year of school – they have volunteered to take part in a two-year Save the Children programme that aims to fast-track them into a teaching career.
The number of girls enrolling in school in Afghanistan has leapt from zero to more than 2.5 million in less than a decade, since the fall of the Taliban. But many drop out as they reach their teenage years. A major reason is that most teachers are male and the girls' relatives do not approve of them associating with males who are not relatives. So Save the Children has begin to train more women teachers – by starting with girls who are themselves still at school.
It is Fatima's turn this morning to practise taking a class. Her instructor, himself a former teacher and Save the Children employee, looks on.
After the 20-minute class concludes, Fatima's instructor and the rest of the class give her feedback. She does well: her manner of addressing the class was very good and she explained the lesson clearly. The only criticism is that she should have taken a roll call.
Under the Taliban regime, girls were not allowed to go to school but even before the hardliners got into government, girls' education was not a priority. The result is that now, 10 years after the regime's collapse, there are still not enough female teachers in Afghanistan. In Bamiyan, for example, out of 3,500 teachers, only 500 are female, according to Provincial Education Department estimates. A total of 240 girls – all volunteers – were chosen from 12 schools in the province to join the programme which consists of 92 hours of training over two years.
Save the Children – one of the three charities supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – chose the girls that seemed the most committed, for as well as participating in the project, they must keep attending their regular school lessons and do the household chores that Afghan girls are expected to do. "Of course it's difficult," says Zakina, 22. "But I am keen to learn. We still have to work at home but it's something we choose to do."
The programme has widespread support among the community, according to Merza Hussain, Save the Children's Education Co-ordinator in Bamiyan. "Most of the community appreciates our project," Mr Hussain says. "Most of the schools in the province don't have female teachers. It's a big problem for the whole of Bamiyan because most of the girls beyond Grade 6 [aged about 13] are not willing to go to school because most of the teachers are male. After the completion of this project [in March 2012] the Provincial Education Department director has promised to hire some of the [project's graduates] as official teachers."
The project has a number of benefits – notably that the project participants are not obliged to become teachers; they can continue on to do a two-year course at teacher training college or go to university. But if a girl's parents or future husband do not want her to further her studies she can start teaching immediately after graduating from high school.
The Save the Children programme focuses on how to teach, whereas TTC and university allow students to learn far more about their chosen field.
Sabira is 16 and would like to go to university in Kabul next year to study Dari literature. She then wants to teach. "I want to be a professional teacher because our country is so backward and there aren't any educated girls," she says. "I want to encourage all girls to go to school. This is the only way to improve our country.
"My parents support me," she adds. "They are not educated, or literate, but they support me. They say: 'Go to university and continue your education because everyone should know you as an educated girl."
Sharifa is also a Save the Children education officer and is an instructor at the even more remote Zarin Girls High School, which is about a half an hour's drive away from the centre of Jakawlang. "They [the girls] say to me, 'This programme really helps improve our courage. We can talk anywhere about anything now. In school, we take part more; before we didn't have the courage to join in'," Sharifa says.
The girls love learning a new way to teach. Teachers in Afghanistan are old-fashioned: they hold court and often resort to corporal punishment to keep pupils in line.
"For me, methodology [of teaching] is really interesting," says Hamida, an 18-year-old who did not start school as she should have done when she was seven because her family was hiding in the mountains from the Taliban. "The old way of teaching is for the teacher to do all the talking. But we learned we should give students that chance. We also do role play. I learnt many things that I hope to be able to use in my future teaching career."
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