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3 months into a school ban for girls and women, a report from Kabul

This past December, the Taliban banned girls and women in Afghanistan from attending high school and university classes, and women from working at non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Last week, on International Women's Day, the United Nations called Afghanistan under the Taliban government “the most repressive country in the world for women.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, we've been in contact with Marnie Gustavson. She was born in Seattle and has a home in Port Orchard but lives in Kabul. Gustavson directs PARSA, an NGO that operates scout and now school programs for boys and girls in half of Afghanistan's provinces.

In recent months, the Afghan youth in PARSA’s programs made a big pivot. In just a few weeks, they started rolling out supplies so girls could keep learning online at home. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm reached out to Gustavson and her staff recently for an update on how that's going.

Kim Malcolm: The last time we spoke was this time last year. You had returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. How is it there now?

Marnie Gustavson: It's been chaotic and nonstop for going on two years. But I have to say, this last decree in December really floored me. But I'm going to say I have never been so satisfied or enjoyed my direct work as I have in the last three months.

Why do you say that? I'm imagining that the circumstances in which you're working are among the most constrained in all the years that you've been working there.

They are. The rules change every day. It is, I have to say, as hard as it's ever been. We've been learning over the last two years how to live and work in these conditions. And then we put our heads together and said, “Hey, we've got this outreach plan for all four of our programs. Let's turn that into a school.” We said, "OK, online schools." That's how it went. And we have close to 1,600 students now registered in our family schools in 17 provinces. That happened in about 10 weeks. And this speaks to how badly Afghan families want education in their lives.

I spoke with one of your staff members recently. Her name is Fariba. She runs your Sisters 4 Sisters youth program. She told me this:

“We weren’t born to starve. We weren't born to just be sad. We weren't born to suffer from sadness. We love our brothers. We love our sisters. We together can improve our country.”

And I was struck by something else she said, about how empowered young women felt to learn and to teach. Were you expecting that to happen with this online school?

No. It's one of the delightful surprises from this program. And it's really an essential for girls. It's happening with our boys as well. Our kids are going home with books and a whiteboard and a program and they're pulling people together. The families have changed how they relate to their youth, girls and boys.

I also spoke to your Afghan Scout program manager, Muslim. Here's part of what he said:

“Right now, we're doing the physical meets in PARSA for the male scout members. And it's really hard for me to just witness them, and not having the female scout members in PARSA. I think that's one of the most difficult things for me.”

Muslim is 21 years old. Fariba is 26. Your program teaches leadership and skills to these young people. And it sounds like they're really taking those lessons to heart.

We actually give them the opportunity to be leaders, as opposed to just teach them. And that's really what the last three months have been.

Afghanistan can seem very far away from us here in the West and in other parts of the world. What is the best way that nongovernmental organizations like yours can be supported in these kinds of circumstances without bringing additional pressure on you and your staff?

Well, I'm going to say this, funding is critical. And it's critical right now because we're doing so much direct materials. We're really expanding beyond what our plans were with this process. Please don't give up on us. Afghanistan is not a lost cause.

Is there a story that stands out when you look back over the last few months, about how you and your staff have adjusted?

We created a conference between the Sisters 4 Sisters and Brothers 4 Brothers. Given the girls can't come back to PARSA under the current rules, I put the decision to the boys and the girls as to whether or not it was fair for the boys to come back and do their classes on-site. The girls were online. I was with the boys in person in our PARSA conference room. And the conversation that the boys and the girls had with each other, I think it had myself and my staff in tears most of the time.

One of the boys started out and just said, “I apologize. I hate walking out the door every morning to go to school and my sister can’t.” And the girls would say, “You must continue your education because you have to make changes in our society, and you're the ones that have access right now, so you have to become enlightened Afghan men. So we support you.”

And at the end of this conference, one of the boys had all of his brothers stand up. He said to the girls online, “You are our heroes. We support you. We are here for you.” And then he called for a 15-second silence while the boys honored the girls. And that was probably one of the most amazing experiences we've been able to be a part of in the last three months.

Full Interview With Fariba

PARSA's Sisters 4 Sisters program manager.

Full Interview With Muslim

PARSA's Afghan Scouts program manager

“Dawn” by Meena Karimi - Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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