UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Fall 2006

Opening Books, Unlocking Minds
Bringing basic literacy—and hope—to Afghani women
By Patricia Sullivan

As part of UMass Amherst’s Learning for Life literacy program in Afghanistan, women worked together in small groups wherever they could find floor space, sometimes in the back of bazaars.

Three years ago in a remote village in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, the former home of Osama bin Laden, Ash Hartwell of the UMass Amherst Center for International Education (CIE) met with seven Afghan elders. His team’s mission was to convince this council—the shura—to allow village women to attend daily classes in literacy and health. Over cups of hot chai, the team explained how these classes could teach women to keep themselves and their families healthier.

“We expected to meet with some hostility, but instead they said, ‘This is long overdue,’” reports Hartwell ’72G, who led the project along with CIE director David R. Evans. “It was rather remarkable that the demand was so strong.”

Approved one community at a time, the CIE literacy program, called Learning for Life, was launched in Kabul and expanded into 11 other Afghan provinces in 2004/2005. The project was funded with a $4.3 million contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). When the program concluded this spring, 8,597 Afghan women had attended classes at 389 learning centers—on the floors of mosques, in markets, schools, and homes. Many came unable to write their own names and left able to read and follow directions, work with measurement and multiplication, and understand immunization and other critical health concepts.

Established in 1968, CIE, part of the Department of Education Policy, Research, and Administration in the School of Education, has extensive experience with similar literacy programs worldwide. Yet even with the shuras’ blessings, this project was especially demanding.

“It was a huge task . . . huge, huge,” says Hartwell. “The needs of the country are overwhelming.” Obstacles included a lack of school facilities and educational materials; a dearth of qualified teachers; gender barriers; transportation and other infrastructure problems; poverty, politics, and safety issues. Operating across a wide cultural chasm also presented challenges, such as scheduling training and classes around Muslim holidays, which vary with lunar cycles. Finally and most formidable, the project’s timeline was a scant 23 months.

But CIE had the expertise and the people for the job, including intrepid graduate student Anita Anastacio. Born in East Germany, 39-year-old Anastacio has worked in East Timor and Mozambique and spent much of the last eight years in Afghanistan. She’s fluent in Dari, comfortable in Kabul, accustomed to power outages and security lockdowns, and entranced, she says, by Afghanistan’s “mysterious people and rough nature.” Anastacio has heavy boots to wear to push trucks out of ruts and a variety of veils to wear in rural spots. While many aspects of Afghan society trouble her, she calls the country “a place to stay longer.”

As campus coordinator for Learning for Life, Anastacio went to Afghanistan three times in two years, concluding with a three-month evaluation last spring. Back in Amherst, she had some rare time to reflect on Learning for Life. With emphatic gestures, she described the program’s frustrations and triumphs.

CIE’s charge was to design the curriculum, supervise, and monitor Learning for Life, Anastacio explains. The project’s goal was to create a sorely needed pool of women ready to train as health-care workers in a country where the literacy rate for rural females is just 8 percent.

“There were some places where we didn’t operate for safety reasons and others where the shura said ‘absolutely not,’” Anastacio says. “But,” she continues, leaning forward for emphasis, “the years of Taliban rule, when girls couldn’t go to school, actually raised awareness of education in Afghanistan and, in a strange way, may have helped those who came after.”

In the provinces where Learning for Life set up classes, staff took care not to frame education as a means of female empowerment. “Instead, we presented it as a way to prevent more mothers and children from dying because of a lack of health-care knowledge,” says Anastacio. “Nearly every woman in Afghanistan has lost a child to war, disease, or emigration. Women were very, very interested in health issues.”

At first, CIE and its partners expected to amend existing Afghan curriculum, but there were no suitable materials in either the Dari or Pashto languages. CIE devised from scratch a student-centered curriculum to engage women who had never before entered a classroom. It covered reading, writing, math, social studies, and religion. CIE doctoral candidate Lisa Deyo helped with the health-care component, which ranged from teaching infection prevention to first aid and nutrition. Learning for Life’s drop-out rate was a lean 10 percent (compared with 40 to 60 percent for most adult literacy programs), even though many women had to walk long distances through dangerous areas to classes and fit studying in around child care, farm chores, weaving, and other work.

While writing 2,500 curriculum pages, CIE and its partners scrambled to find and train female instructors; men can’t enter women’s classrooms in Afghanistan. Their recruits included teenagers who were younger than most of their students and grandmothers who had ended their education in the sixth grade. Students and teachers together learned how to work in groups and speak freely in class.

Making the whole effort succeed across ethnically and geographically diverse Afghanistan was the joint work of nine different domestic and international agencies. Anita Anastacio spreads nine fingers wide to stress the complexity of navigating through these organizational layers. Starting with the contacts and commitment of master’s candidate Barbara Rodey, CIE was a subcontractor for the Boston-based Management Sciences for Health, under a community health-care project funded by USAID. CIE subcontracted with the International Rescue Committee to carry out the implementation of the program in Afghanistan with local nongovernmental agencies. Additionally, CIE hired project directors Robert Russell ’82G and Vickie Sigman to administer the project from Kabul.

Anastacio’s memories of working with the Afghan staff make her smile broadly. “We had Afghan women traveling around the country for the first time to work.” She lays her hand on her heart to underscore the shock of the next innovation. “We had Afghan men and women actually sitting together at conference tables!”Anastacio traveled, via small planes and on dirt roads, to five provinces to interview villagers about the programs’ personal and community impact. “Women told us they now understood why it’s important to see a midwife during pregnancy,” she said. “They reported they brushed their teeth more frequently and kept their kitchens cleaner.” One mother credited the classes with saving her child’s life because she had learned the proper treatment for diarrhea.

The social benefits of Learning for Life were compelling, too. Attending classes gave Afghan women a legitimate reason to get together and share experiences. It offered rare opportunities to discuss the wider world. Anastacio says: “We heard beautiful comments from women that went beyond educational and health information. We heard, ‘I get more respect at home now. I find it easier to talk with my husband.’”

She quotes a 45-year-old mother of five in Faryab:

I think I changed a lot. . . . Now I am thinking about life. . . . Things that I learn in class I tell others. Also, being in the class made me realize that I am not the only one having lost a child in the war. . . . I feel less sad now.

When CIE’s contract ended, so did most Learning for Life classes, yet almost all students surveyed wanted more. “With 8,000 women in a country of 25 million, I can only say we made a small but significant impact,” Anastacio says. “But I think we gave them inspiration to learn, and other programs will use our curriculum and experiences and continue to educate Afghan women.” The project’s final test results were very encouraging, with 91 percent of students in Kabul and Herat, for example, passing third-grade equivalency exams; of those who went on to take sixth-grade exams, 93 percent passed.

“The program went surprisingly well,” comments David Evans. “Work like this is a chance for UMass to reach out and help people around the world.”

Building on its Learning for Life expertise, credibility, and contacts, CIE is playing a vital role in another project that gives the university even greater opportunities to help the Afghan people. In February, CIE received a five-year, $8.1 million USAID contract to strengthen the four-year universities that train secondary-school teachers in Afghanistan. CIE will have five full-time staffers working on the higher-education project, and as part of this effort, up to 24 Afghan graduate students will study at UMass Amherst.

As for Anita Anastacio, she finished her thesis in July and headed back to work in Kabul. When she considers the future of war-ravaged, impoverished Afghanistan, her hands briefly stop moving. “I look at it as the Afghan people do,” she says. “They have never lost hope, so I have hope.”

Special Section: Big Ideas for a Small World

Into Africa
Susan Black '64 fights to keep families togetehr in the face of AIDS.
Rx for H20, In Two Parts
Part One: Tralance Addy leverages entrepreneurship to bring clean water to everyone.
Rx for H20
Part Two: Engineering students learn about the power and politics of clean water in Kenya.
Opening Books, Unlocking Minds
Bringing basic literacy—and hope—to Afghani women.
A Rare Kind of Guy
Brett Jenks '89 is all business about saving the environment.
Justice for All?
How a war criminal gets convicted may be as important to victimes as the verdict itself.

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