Pen Path volunteer Malalai refuses to let anything get in the way of her campaigning for educational rights.
"We must use whatever we have in hand to serve Afghanistan and its people"
Afghan Witness changed the name of the individual interviewed.
Since last August, the Taliban have imposed restrictions on women’s rights to education, employment, and travel, while also decreeing them to cover their faces in public. The Taliban’s reluctance to re-open girls' secondary schools in most parts of Afghanistan has prompted widespread condemnation both inside and outside of the country, with Afghan teenage girls out of classrooms for over 250 days.
Experts say suffering has reached “unprecedented levels” in Afghanistan. Last September, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that 97 percent of Afghans could be living in poverty by mid-2022.
In spite of the grim images of day-to-day life in the country, campaigners and volunteers are striving to improve the situation. Among them stands a group of educators, activists and volunteers known as Pen Path. Pen Path is a community-based education support network established in 2009 by Matiullah Wesa, an activist and educator from Kandahar province.
Afghan Witness (AW) spoke with civil society activist Malalai, not her real name, a volunteer and board member of Pen Path in Kabul. An MBA holder and former university lecturer, Malalai joined Pen Path eight years ago and volunteers alongside her work at an international organisation.
Pen Path is active in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan and 310 districts of the country. According to Pen Path, the organisation has opened around 100 closed schools, established 39 libraries, and created 1,700 home literacy classes for girls throughout the country. Their focus, however, has been on the most deprived areas where schools rarely existed or did not exist at all, says Malalai, who talks about her involvement in the organisation’s house-to-house campaigns on the outskirts of Kabul.
“We travelled to various districts of Kabul, such as Deh Sabz and Khak-e-Jabar and met with families who did not allow their daughters to attend schools - or, for instance, met with school officials who lacked female teachers and staff,” she explains. “We raised awareness and, in the meantime, shared people’s grievances and problems with the respective authorities.”
A new way of campaigning
Malalai acknowledges the fact that with the Taliban takeover, women volunteers have faced restrictions, for example, travelling to other provinces has become difficult after the Taliban announced women must be accompanied by a close male relative if travelling for more than 72km.
However, Malalai says the organisation’s efforts have not been diminished - she and her fellow female campaigners continue to work online and, once a month, meet at the Pen Path office in Kabul. According to Malalai, their in-person meetings, gatherings and campaigns have reduced and have been replaced by online initiatives due to fear of disruption from the Taliban, but Malalai says campaigners have not been disheartened - “our campaigns are not periodic, they are consistent” she adds.
Upon returning to power, the Taliban issued a ban on protests and slogans that had not been pre-approved by them. After multiple verified incidents of the Taliban attempting to disrupt some public protests, AW noticed a trend in which activists transitioned protests into indoor and private spaces, such as homes and offices, then shared images on social media to gather traction and raise awareness.
“The new restrictions imposed by the Taliban have not stopped us from pursuing our goals. We do not lose any opportunity to campaign,” Malalai stresses. “For instance, when at home, I gather my family members and hold placards reading ‘girls should be back in school’ and share them on social media.”
Giving back to Afghanistan
With around 2,400 volunteers across Afghanistan, Pen Path has launched mobile schools travelling to some of the most far-flung areas of the country. For Malalai, her work and the impact her work creates in these communities is her way of giving back to Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is my home - the country has invested in me and educated me. I went on a scholarship abroad for a Master's degree funded by the government of Afghanistan. I feel it is my responsibility to work for my country and pay [it] back,” she explains.
Tens of thousands of professionals and skilled workers have left the country since the Taliban takeover, leaving Afghanistan facing a “brain drain”. Stories have also emerged of the professional women who have been unable to leave and have instead gone into hiding, even going so far as to burn their degrees or delete evidence of their work.
Many ambitious young women with Malalai’s qualifications have left the country in pursuit of better opportunities, however, Malalai feels that staying in Afghanistan is more important than ever.
“We, the younger generation, have abilities and gifts, and Afghanistan needs our capacities and skills more than any other time,” she says. “Although the conditions on the ground are not pleasant and are difficult, we must use whatever we have in hand to serve Afghanistan and its people.”
Interview by Afghan Witness