• Let's Read Afghanistan - an Afghan-led campaign to promote literacy and volunteerism

Let's Read Afghanistan - an Afghan-led campaign to promote literacy and volunteerism

05 May 2017

by Freshta Merza

Freshta Merza works as a Communication Officer for the SDO, a longstanding Afghan NGO that promotes peace and education. She is also a civil society activist, and member of the ‘Bekhan Afghanistan’ campaign to reduce illiteracy in the country. This interview was originally conducted in Dari.

What are the aims of the ‘Bekhan Afghanistan’ campaign?

‘Bekhan Afghnaistan’ means ‘Let’s Read Afghanistan’! It aims to reduce illiteracy by encouraging those Afghans who can read and write to volunteer, and to fulfil their responsibility to help their countrymen and women who cannot. In fact, the campaign’s objective is that each literate Afghan should help at least one illiterate Afghan in the year 1396 in Afghanistan (2017 AD). We want a popular uprising against illiteracy!

We launched the campaign the day before the Afghan New Year began, on 20 March 2017, in Kabul and in 26 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. We want this to be the year during which Afghans take it upon themselves to achieve a big leap towards eradicating illiteracy in our country.

Sadly, the on-going conflict and violence in the country has prevented many people from accessing education. This means that a large proportion of the population – 68.3% according to UN estimates – cannot read or write. Figures from the Education Ministry show that the rate of improvement of literacy in Afghanistan is alarmingly slow – only about 1% annually. The average is worse for Afghan women, only about 30% of whom can read and write. But we believe that this is a right for all Afghans, and we are working to push the rate of improvement to 2 or 3% every year.

Secondly, and more broadly, we want to promote volunteerism in Afghanistan. This has always been part of the culture of our country, but the war has meant that people have become primarily concerned about their own survival. We want Afghans to think more about their communities, and how to achieve collective benefits.

What impact is illiteracy having on Afghanistan?

A huge impact. Illiteracy is causing many problems in our country, and a lack of access to education lies at the root of poverty, violence, and insecurity. Awareness of one’s own rights and responsibilities also becomes severely restricted when people don’t know how to read and understand those concepts.

We also need to fight against misconceptions about education in some parts of the country. We need to make people aware that Islam places a great emphasis on education. Our initiative is purely Afghan-led, and we want to achieve participation and trust.

What activities does the campaign undertake?

Some volunteers are simply teaching the illiterate people who they know – family members, friends, and colleagues in their offices such as cooks and security guards. Others are recruiting more teaches to the campaign.

Our volunteers provide reading and writing materials to the learners. We raise awareness through radio and television broadcasts, and through videos on social media about the need to fight illiteracy. We’ve gained support from Afghan celebrities for these promotional clips!

How do you encourage people to volunteer?

For starters, this is about volunteering, so we’re not using monetary incentives. Civil society organisations, unions, media outlets, and other such organisations have joined in. They’re finding members of their organisations who need help learning to read and write, and are helping them. We want ‘Bekhan Afghanistan’ to become a cultural trend, in which people pass their literacy to their friends, families, colleagues, and communities.

For example, I worked with a mother whose limited wealth meant that her 14-year old daughter had never been to school. The lack of security in the country meant that the daughter found it difficult to start her education. She also worried that she didn’t have the right clothes to wear, or bag to use. But, after her family’s agreement, she is now in her first year of school. I promised that I would help her with the supplies that she needed, and would provide tutoring. We hope that her learning can now be accelerated, and she will rise through her classes more quickly.

There’s too often a perception of Afghanistan as a dependent nation, relying on foreign support to bring about positive change. ‘Bekhan Afghanistan’ prides itself on being an initiative led and sustained by Afghans. We want to counter a mind-set of dependence, and show that Afghans can win change for themselves.

What is the culture like among those working on the campaign?

It is an inclusive culture. Everyone must feel like the owners and leaders of the campaign. And it is a collective culture. Nobody is allowed to claim sole credit for the campaign.

A key principle is that we will not use funds from non-Afghan entities. Of course, we want international groups to provide us with non-materiel support, such as by promoting us through media coverage and other ways. But we only accept funding from Afghan sources, and we also encourage Afghans living abroad to take part.

What are your worries?

Of course there are challenges but, with the exception of the insecurity in some of Afghanistan’s provinces, they are not big challenges. Too often, when we ask the private sector for help, they think that we are just another initiative by just another NGO that won’t spend their money effectively. It takes time for them to trust us.

I worry that illiterate people above a certain age will be reluctant to sign up to the courses.  They think that learning to read and write is too big a challenge, or that it is too late for them to do so. We need to encourage them, as well as support them. We also encounter deeply-rooted social attitudes that hinder our work, and overcoming them takes patience and persistence.

But, if we get a growing number of Afghan role models, then change is possible and it is closer than we think. I believe in our success.

To conclude?

Like life and dignity, education is a right of every human being. People without education find it harder to lead a dignified life. In Afghanistan, we will keep working until the last citizen is able to read and write. We hope that future generations will continue and that, one day, we can look back and proudly say that illiteracy in Afghanistan is history.