On the day that I heard of the kidnapping of the girls from their school in Nigeria, I was very upset.  Innocent children, whose parents had sent them to school so that they could  have better lives for themselves and their families, had been brutally taken away by ignorant, power-hungry terrorists. I believe that children are a gift from God, and they need to be protected and nurtured.  Those who harm innocent children in the name of religion are, in reality, ignorant and unbelievers.  It reminded me of the ignorant terrorists in my own country who are violently opposed to girls’ education and what we at the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) have done to provide a safe and secure environment for women and girls to study.

When we began opening schools for girls, we knew that we needed to understand and honor the Afghan culture and traditions.  We needed to work at the grassroots with the responsible people in each community and support programs that the people wanted.  We also knew that the tenets of Islam could be used to support education for girls.   So we involved the community in our education programs; we met with the leaders, the elders and the mullahs. We asked them for their ideas, and we asked them to contribute to the programs.  We sought their advice when hiring teachers. We helped them to understand that Islam supported education for all.  When they asked for teacher training or health education or leadership workshops, we gave them the training they asked for, always promoting critical thinking and creativity. Working in this way, the community felt involved in the education programs.  They usually provided the space for schools and they always provided protection and security for the girls attending our schools.  When there were trouble-makers, the community always let us know and worked with us to solve security issues.

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Because we worked in this way, communities grew to trust us.  They asked for more and more classes.  Initially, the mothers and daughters who came to our schools and centers wanted to learn skills like tailoring, embroidery and carpet weaving so that they could sew their own clothes and also earn money for their families.  They wanted to learn about nutrition and how to keep themselves and their families healthy. They began requesting English and computer classes so that they could be a part of the modern world.  They asked for poetry, calligraphy and miniature painting classes. As their minds continued to open, they wanted workshops on leadership, human rights, peace, and most recently, elections.

At AIL, we have paid special attention to educating Afghan young people.  Their minds are open and they have not become set in their ways. When they have an opportunity to learn from teachers who help them to develop their critical-thinking skills, they come up with creative and innovative ideas to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.  The youth are the future of our country.

It has taken time and patience, but the result has been that, since 1995, we have provided various kinds of education to over 11 million Afghans, 70% of them female. More importantly, the mindset of the communities where we work has changed.  Education of girls and women has brought a better life for everybody in the community, and the members of the community provide security and support for the education of their girls.

I pray that the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria will be soon freed and that the girls, with the help of their parents and the communities where they live, will be able to continue their education and become leaders in their country.