Educational Access in Afghanistan
By Robert Schroeder
National Louis University's Donna Ogle, Ed.D., had good reason to be nervous.
Transported in a bullet-ridden van, covered from head to toe in a shalwar kameez, readying to meet with a group of men in a country that has marginalized women for decades.
Afghanistan has always been a harsh host to foreigners; the Russian and United States militaries can attest. And yet, as Ogle approached a compound in eastern Afghanistan, her Afghan hosts rushed out and bowed to her with cries of "Dr. Donna! Dr. Donna!"
So began six weeks of collaboration, contradiction and community building with Afghanistan's leading educational professionals. Ogle, a professor in the National College of Education, traveled to the war-torn nation in 1996 with USAID in hopes of building an integrated curriculum.
Ogle received a celebrity welcome—her videos on curriculum building were well-known among the Afghans she met with—but she soon found herself immersed in Afghanistan's beguiling social and political morass. Yes, she was a woman, and yes, she was required to wear the shalwar kameez, but her Afghan male counterparts seemed to view her as a non-gendered person, strictly a professional.
Whatever her gender role, Ogle set to work developing easy reading texts to develop literacy among wide ranges of age groups. Taking over for another consultant who failed to connect with Afghan people, Ogle used 16-frame storyboards to introduce key vocabulary.
"You take a theme or topic, and then you think about the key vocabulary you need to discuss or read it, and you think about how much you can represent visually," Ogle said. "Just like with kids' stories, you represent as much as you can in visual form with as little of written language as necessary."
Men's and women's education were almost completely separate in the 1990s in Afghanistan, and Ogle found herself treading identical tracks in different camps. First, she would work on curriculum development with female teachers. Then she would bundle into a truck and repeat the same process with male teachers who worked with all-male students. Most of the males in charge of curriculum had never taught actual students, unlike their female counterparts. With years of classroom experience, most of the female teachers grasped new curriculum ideas easily. Yet, the male leaders refused to work with their female counterparts—except for the seemingly genderless Ogle.
The Russians had imposed mandatory education for girls during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and women's education has carried this stigma ever since. In evaluating the effectiveness of women's education programs, Ogle often found home schools as the only educational option available. She described walled compounds with teacher sitting on a cushion surrounded by grandmothers, mothers and daughters, each with a slate in hand, and education moving forward in groups of a dozen.
"Attempting to bring all girls out of the home compound and their communities is problematic and challenging," Ogle said. "I think for some girls, some solutions deserve to be worked on continuously."
The takeover of the Taliban and subsequent U.S. invasion wiped out most of the progress Afghans and foreign aid had achieved in developing an education system. Ogle, however, sees hope in the United States' continued insistence on pushing for women's education.
"The U.S. wouldn't just allow traditional Afghan values of keeping girls at home to continue," Ogle said. "Women who had some education in Kabul in the 70's and 80's were very free in terms of 21st century society; in the rest of the country in rural areas, that is not the case."
Despite the political and social hurdles, Afghan culture and literacy soldiers on. Ogle points to books like The Kite Runner and The Thousands Suns as well as recent publications about the Afghan women's resistance movement as evidence the country is slowly confronting its internal conflicts.
Ogle says she hopes to return to the country when its security situation has stabilized. Her home base in 1996, Peshawar, Pakistan, developed into a hotbed for al-Qaeda in the early 2000s following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. May 2011 featured the most civilian deaths in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war.
As the United States is slated to begin removing combat troops from Afghanistan in August and popular support for a continued presence crumbling, there is no guarantee another opportunity to work in the country may arise. To the girls and women who Ogle worked with, "Dr. Donna's" presence will be felt for a lifetime.