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Improving education in Afghanistan

May 21, 2013
Lauryn Oates

Acid is thrown in the faces of girls on their way to school. A father is shot for encouraging his daughter to get an education. A school is hit with a rocket. Students witness the murder of their teacher. Stories like these are common in Afghanistan. Rather than being discouraged by such acts of violence against those who stand up for the right to education, human rights advocate Lauryn Oates is more motivated than ever.

“One group of people that really inspires me is all the martyrs to education – all the teachers, students, principals and parents that have been killed because they’ve been targeted by the Taliban specifically for educating girls,” says Oates, Royal Roads University spring 2013 Alumni Leadership Award winner.

Oates, who is projects director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan) and a freelance consultant, is particularly inspired by the resilience and determination of the 15 female students and teachers who were victims of an acid attack in 2008. All of the wounded went back to school following their recovery.

“I will fight these people by continuing to go to school,” Shamsia Husseini, one of the injured teenagers told media. “Last time they threw acid to stop me, but even if they hit me with bullets, I will not stop going to school.”

Shamsia’s words stick with Oates as she works to improve education for the people of Afghanistan. Oates herself was a teen when she first became interested in women’s rights in Afghanistan back in 1996. “I was harping constantly about rights and justice and challenging authority,” she recalls. “My right to stay out late and to dye my hair blue.” In an effort to channel Oates’s energy into a more proactive interest in justice and rights, her mother gave her a newspaper article about the Taliban and its treatment of women. “At 14, I couldn’t believe this was happening in the same world I was living in. I felt enraged and unsatisfied with doing nothing. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to find Afghanistan on a map at that time and I didn’t know anything about human rights or international law, but I did understand one key thing and that was that it was the silence of ordinary people like me that was allowing this to happen.”

Oates didn’t stay silent. She wrote a petition, asking people to condemn what the Taliban was doing and urge our government to take action. She sent it to the Canadian and U.S. governments and even faxed it to the Taliban after finding a number on their website. She learned a lot in the process. Her Grade 9 science teacher, for example, refused to sign the petition, saying how Afghanistan chooses to treat its women is none of his business. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” she says. “But I got used to hearing this because it’s the refrain that has accompanied my work since the very beginning and that’s cultural relativism, that excuse making. It’s very dangerous because it serves us as an excuse not to do anything. As we live in our own free and privileged society, to not have to extend those freedoms to others or assume that others don’t want them.”

Three years later, Oates founded the Vancouver branch of CW4WAfghan and then the Montreal branch in 2001.

“Lauryn has spent her teen and adult life as a dynamic and dedicated human rights advocate,” says Janice Eisenhauer, executive director of CW4WAfghan. “Thousands of Canadian youth and adults have been inspired to take action, and their volunteerism is heightened because of Lauryn’s example.”

Since 2003, Oates has travelled to Afghanistan about 40 times. She now spends about a third of her time in Afghanistan and the rest in Burnaby, B.C. Having worked extensively with Afghans, it’s clear to Oates that they want what we often take for granted in Canada.

“I wouldn’t be doing this work if it wasn’t Afghans saying, ‘Give us education. Give us literacy. We want the kinds of opportunities that have come easily to you.’ There’s this really homegrown demand for education, but also for democracy and for human rights,” Oates says. “At the end of the day people have the same needs whether they live in Victoria or in Kabul. They want their kids to do well and make something of themselves, they want to be able to put food on the table and pay their bills, they want to have all their basic needs met and have dreams that they have some chance of realizing.”

By the time Oates came to Royal Roads to start her MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding in 2004, she was already an inspiring and effective activist, recalls former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and former associate faculty member Gordon Smith. “Lauryn is an outstanding Canadian, a person who is making a real difference in the world,” he says. “Through her work she has brought meaning change and this has been enormously inspiring to all those that know her.”

Oates believes that the right to education is a stepping stone to all other human rights, and so that’s where she focuses her work. One of the largest CW4WAfghan projects Oates is working on is the FANOOS Teacher Training. (“Fanoos” means lantern and the name comes from the Afghan proverb, “A teacher is a candle that burns to enlighten others.”) The initiative focuses on giving teachers the skills and materials they need to effectively instruct their students. Oates notes that 70 per cent of teachers are under-qualified or not qualified. They’ve had no teacher training, most of them have no post-secondary education and a good number of them don’t even have high school. To date, CW4WAfghan has trained more than 4,000 teachers, who in turn have been certified by the Ministry of Education and given a pay raise for being qualified. “We’ve seen over the years that we get the most bang for our buck by focusing on people, on teachers and students, rather than on building or refurbishing schools,” says Oates, adding that there’s been significant progress made in the past decade on getting schools built, students enrolled and teachers working and now’s the time to focus on quality of education.

Despite the progress, teachers, schoolgirls and their families continue to be targeted by the Taliban. Oates is well aware of the dangers of her work. When she hears of people in the sector losing their lives, she pauses for a moment and asks herself if she can continue. The answer comes quickly. “There is risk, but the work is too important to stop.”