Educating women in Afghanistan, one class at a time
Sadiqa Basiri Saleem is no ordinary student. Her day-to-day life is spent working on her thesis as an international graduate student in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa. But her work doesn’t stop there. Sadiqa is the co-founder and executive director of the Oruj Learning Center, a non-profit agency in Afghanistan that delivers education to women. Sadiqa created the school in 2002, when she went back to her homeland with her savings, a blackboard, some chalk, notebooks and a mission—to create the village’s first school for girls. The results so far are impressive, with over 4,000 girls having received an education at the Center.
Sadiqa’s vision of the world and how she can make it better is quite remarkable. She recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she joined former U.S. president Bill Clinton on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative University Meeting, an international conference with students from over 70 countries. The conference promoted how students such as Sadiqa can get involved on the international scene
In a developing country such as Afghanistan, there are many obstacles along the way that make Sadiqa’s work challenging. She consults with the staff in Afghanistan all the way from Ottawa, but something as simple as finding teachers is not an easy task, especially when it comes to higher education. Sadiqa is trying to make more connections between professors in Afghanistan and professors abroad in order to gain more credibility for the Oruj Leadership and Management Institute—the first women’s community college in Afghanistan, established by Sadiqa in 2009. Funding is essential, and Sadiqa works diligently to find new partnerships to fund the girls’ primary schools and the college. But the biggest obstacle of all is security. Over the last seven years, security in Afghanistan has been deteriorating, which affects attendance at school and during examinations. “We fall behind schedule when classes cannot run. Once, we were even a month behind,” says Sadiqa. The Center has also moved several times due to rent increases. “We do not have institutional funding to pay for operating costs and because security is a concern, donors are reluctant to invest in such projects,” adds Sadiqa.
The importance of the student experience
Providing the best experience possible for the women who come to the Oruj Learning Center is the number one priority for Sadiqa. “We try to build trust with students. They talk to us on a personal level and we listen,” Sadiqa says. “We have been educated by their lives,” she adds, with a smile.
Sadiqa describes a situation where a woman came to the Oruj Leadership and Management Institute, to take the entrance exam, and her family was unaware. “In many cases, only mothers know. Family support is important for the women,” says Sadiqa. “Unfortunately, a lot of girls do not have the approval of their families. The men believe they should stay home and many girls are afraid of losing the opportunity to pursue higher education.” To help with this issue, the Center has established a student alumni association and this initiative has been successful so far. Monthly events are held, bringing together women that have graduated and those who are just starting out. “This is about being inspired by each other, identifying ways to address social issues and gaining confidence, not only education.”
Sadiqa has recently been invited to join the Technical Advisory Group of the Global Initiative on Education led by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. This allows her to share her experience and gain a global perspective on education. Through teleconferencing and online forums, this committee discusses education in terms of its access, relevance and worldwide quality.
Funding is an important part of keeping this project alive. And as the word is getting out about the Oruj Learning Center, large companies are taking notice. Microsoft Corporation approached Sadiqa to provide software for the college. Now Sadiqa is working on securing some computers in order to benefit from this software.
Last year, 72 women, ranging in age from 18 to their mid-30s, graduated from the community college. This year the numbers will be around the same. “It’s great to see these women graduate and enter the professional job market,” says Sadiqa. “But what’s even greater is to see that we are producing agents of change. It is powerful to see women transforming their families and communities,” and, she adds, “I was amazed to see the woman who was once sneaking education, constantly being photographed on her graduation day by the same brother who initially opposed her education.”