Issue 75 - Article 7

Advancing access to education for girls and women in humanitarian emergencies: critical insights into community engagement in Afghanistan

May 31, 2019
Emilie Rees Smith, Emma Symonds and Lauryn Oates

Over the last 15 years, girls have gone from being forbidden from enrolling in school to representing 39% of learners in Afghanistan’s basic education system Note that figures for the number of girls in school in Afghanistan vary considerably according to the data source. .However, significant challenges in girls’ education remain: an estimated 3.7 million children are out of school – 60% of whom are girls. Only 37% of female youth and 19% of adult women are literate, compared to 66% of male youth and 49% of adult men United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and European Commission, Afghanistan Gender Country Profile – Final Report: Short Version, 21 September 2016, p. 9. .A range of factors keep girls out of school, including lack of government schools in rural areas, low levels of trained female teachers, the poor quality of teaching and the school environment and targeted attacks by insurgents on girls’ schools. Traditional gender norms confine girls to the domestic sphere and preparation for marriage: early marriage rates in Afghanistan are among the highest in the world, with over a third of girls married before the age of 18. UNICEF, State of the World’s Children (New York: UNICEF, 2017).

This article is framed by perspectives from the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI)’s experience as global convener on girls’ education and as co-convener of the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Gender Task Team. It draws on insights from the Steps Towards Afghan Girls’ Education Success (STAGES) project, part of the DFID Girls’ Education Challenge, led by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). STAGES works at grassroots level in remote and insecure locations across Afghanistan to increase access to and quality of education for girls, and to improve community and parental attitudes. Since 2013, the project has enrolled 40,795 girls and 18,038 boys in various levels of education. This article discusses emerging good practice and lessons from the first phase, and how these have shaped the project’s next phase (STAGES II) and includes independent reflections by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan).

STAGES’ experience of community-based education and community engagement

STAGES is implemented in close collaboration with the com- munity and local government authorities. The project provides the teacher and classroom materials, teacher training and mentoring and supports community engagement; the community contributes classroom space and volunteer time. Results have shown increased enrolment, attendance and transition to secondary school as well as improved levels of reading fluency and numeracy over the course of the project, and higher levels compared with counterparts in government schools. This is particularly the case for marginalised girls, including girls with disabilities, those engaged in labour and girls who do not initially speak the language of instruction. STAGES I was designed to progress the same group of students from grade one to graduation, but this excluded those who missed out on initial class registration. Learning from this, STAGES II is piloting multi-grade classrooms, where new students are enrolled in grade one each year, and multiple grades are taught simultaneously.

Through the project’s community-based education (CBE) and engagement of community members, girls can continue their education even in insecure areas. CBE classes remain open on the basis of community acceptance, and with the support of local teachers and community members who can leverage relationships with local decision-makers. Non-governmental actors are able to enter areas controlled by armed opposition groups, where government actors are not present, and when NGO staff members are unable to access communities community members can keep classes going. Although classes can be suspended due to fighting, learning outcomes in areas that are insecure or under the control of armed groups are not necessarily lower than those of students in communities under government control.

School Management Shuras (SMSs) are a key part of STAGES’ community engagement approach. SMSs comprise community members who provide daily oversight of the school, mobilise community resources and advocate for education. Members are trained on their roles and responsibilities and on topics such as gender and community mobilisation. Where communities become inaccessible to project staff due to insecurity, SMSs can step in to ensure that schools continue to operate. SMSs help ensure that schools are safe and respectful learning spaces, and are proving successful in bringing back girls who have dropped out and improving girls’ attendance. They have helped learners and their parents manage household needs and educational activities, in one case listing household chores together with the parents and setting a schedule for them, and have intervened when domestic labour appears to be negatively affecting school attendance.

Female shura members are an important resource for girls, who feel more comfortable talking to them about issues at home or in class, or on matters of hygiene. However, many communities still believe that it is not appropriate for women to participate in an SMS, and STAGES has found it extremely difficult to engage female SMS members. Participation in SMSs is usually dictated by gender rather than by individual skill sets or capacity, with male members in decision-making roles, while female members fulfil socially prescribed roles such as cleaning classrooms or cooking for the men. STAGES II is experimenting with different strategies to address this, including developing a job description for SMS members outlining roles for men and women and specifically removing responsibility for cooking and cleaning from women, and hiring more female community mobilisers to work with hiring and training female shura members.

STAGES also works with the broader community, elders and religious leaders to promote girls’ education. In community meetings, men and women identify the challenges to girls’ education and jointly develop solutions relevant to their context. Project staff run awareness-raising campaigns, host radio programmes and organise mobile theatre productions. These activities have contributed to strong positive shifts in community attitudes towards girls’ education, especially among men and boys. The project has also seen increased local ownership, with community members providing significant levels of in-kind contributions.

The most effective messages tend to highlight the link between girls’ education and the wellbeing of the entire community. Dedicated female teachers show that teaching is a respectable profession for women, and female SMS members demonstrate that women in positions of authority are capable, competent and responsible, working on behalf of and for their communities. Gradually communities become accustomed to seeing women in new roles, while girls have role models who broaden their horizons on what’s possible in the future.

Building sustainable systems for girls in partnership with government

Through projects such as STAGES, NGOs play a critical role in maintaining a lifeline to education during emergencies. CBE is often the only chance an Afghan girl will get to go to school, especially during emergencies. However, externally funded NGO-run programmes are not sustainable without government engagement. A key component of STAGES is therefore working towards the transition of girls to government schools. Since girls who move to government schools are more likely to be from wealthier households, STAGES provides targeted support to girls in the final year before they transition to government schools, with particular attention to girls at risk of dropping out for financial reasons.

STAGES also works to ensure the systematic engagement and coordination of community and local education officials in the delivery of CBE. STAGES II includes regular training workshops, joint monitoring visits and meetings with Community Development Councils (CDCs) and provincial and district education officials. The project also engages with the Ministry of Education at the national level, and is initiating sustain- ability and handover planning much earlier than in the first stage. Government officials are directly involved in programme delivery, including co-developing tools and processes and participating in project committees and working groups. Collaboration between the government and NGOs features in the National Education Strategic Plan, and the recently launched Girls’ Education Policy – the first of its kind in Afghanistan – underscores the role of CBE in bringing out-of-school girls into the system. The policy also supports the establishment of SMSs and the importance of women’s role within them. This new institutional framework presents an opportunity to cement changes brought about by community-based efforts such as STAGES through greater investment and systematic uptake nationwide.


Efforts to improve the quality of teaching and the school environment alongside community engagement strategies are proving effective, both in addressing more immediate access challenges for girls in particular, and influencing attitudes and behaviours relating to gender equality. Establishing a two-way relationship between the school and the community is contributing to increased levels of girls’ enrolment and attendance among STAGES target communities across Afghanistan. The STAGES experience underscores the importance of meaningfully engaging local and national education officials at all stages of implementation, and providing support for the careful formulation and execution of transition plans from CBE to government schooling.

Emilie Rees Smith is Gender, Education and Peacebuilding Specialist at UNGEI. Emma Symonds is STAGES PMU Manager. Lauryn Oates is Executive Director of CW4WAfghan. Rayana Fazli, Nora Fyles, Latifa Majidi, Nafisa Shekhova and Qurbanali Waezi were key contributors to this article.

Further details on practical approaches to gender-responsive education in emergencies, including community participation and engagement, are available through the recently launched INEE Guidance Note on Gender. This provides key information and resources on providing, managing and supporting education services as part of emergency preparedness, response or recovery programmes.


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