By providing $60 a month per family, the organisation aims for every Afghan girl to go to school.
by Portia Ladrido
The Emmy-nominated documentary trailer of Girl Rising opens with recorded broadcast news of 14 yr. old Malala Yousafzai shot in the head for fighting for girls’ rights to education in Afghanistan. Nine girls from different countries – Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Nepal, Egypt, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Peru, India, and Haiti – are then introduced; all with distinct stories that reflect their continuous struggle to rise above their nations’ sociocultural barriers.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Marilyn Gordanier, founder of Laurel Springs, the first online school in the United States, had insider access to the Afghanistan section of the series as her own daughter, Ramaa Mosley, was filming this particular story. “She tells a story of a little girl, Amina, who’s forced into marriage at 11 and gives birth to a baby at 12. I just felt so disturbed by this story, since I had a chance to see the edits over and over,” Marilyn recalled.
The scenes from the documentary kept recurring in her head and Marilyn felt compelled to dig deeper. Her daughter then introduced her to the writer of the Afghan bit, Zarghuna Kargar or Zari as she is commonly called, who is from the BBC World Service in London. They met in New York and she immediately told Zari that she wanted to help the Afghan children, but didn’t know how as she’s not fully aware of what their needs were like.
“She said that one of the things that is missing is so simple – and that is if children are fed and clothed, then their parents don’t feel compelled to sell them or have them begged. They want them to go to school. The mothers want to send them to school. So, we began a project called Food 4 School.”
Food 4 School has been running for four years now. They provide families $60 a month, an amount that is enough to feed an entire family, and in exchange, the parents should agree to send their children to school every day. Two BBC journalists who live in Kabul are on the ground to help in disseminating the money to the families and checking if the children are in school.
Marilyn said that there were families that were near starvation when they first started, and they’ve discovered that the key to making their model sustainable is to give the money to the mothers.
“We found that the mothers are very concerned about their children. They have their best interests at heart and that they are the responsible party. Not only that; it empowers the mothers now to go out and to start small businesses,” she explained.
She added that Zari knew firsthand that this was a crucial part of the process. “She grew up in Afghanistan and escaped to London through Pakistan with her family, and she knew that in every part of the program, we have to demonstrate that we’re caring for the women,” she said.
“If we give the money to the men, the power will reside with them. If we give the power to the women, they will be respected by their husbands, which is true, and we are sure that they’ll take care of their children. Because for mothers, their children are their greatest concern.”
With their strong support for mothers and widows alike, they’ve seen that the women have become more confident in their capabilities as they make their own income. The organisation currently aids 17 families with over 75 children. In all of these families, only one husband has a job because it’s either they find it difficult to find work or they are addicted to opium or poppies.
Since it started, Marilyn said that they have only had one major struggle. It was a family of a little girl who was sent by her brother, who was a Taliban, to go to the market with a bomb strapped to her body.
“Instead of detonating the bomb, she went to the police. The police promised that they would not return her to her family. But they did. They sent her back and her father didn’t want her to go to school. We contacted them and said that we wanted her to be part of our program and he refused,” she said.
“After about 3 months, he finally agreed. But within another 2 months, she disappeared. We believe that her brother took her. We visited her family because we asked to see her and she was never shown to us, so we contacted the police but nothing was done.”
Fortunately, this type of situation doesn’t happen in Kabul, the Afghan capital. However, Marilyn said that there are Taliban provinces that they are extremely careful of. Even with this threat of danger, there was a group of girls who boldly travelled from a Taliban administered area to Kabul so they could reach out to Food 4 School.
“They were really serious and that it took a lot of courage for these young girls, ages 12 to 14, to come all the way to Kabul on their own just for us to help them to get an education,” she said.
To date, Food 4 School has seen two of their girls graduate and go to college, whilst mothers or widows have started their own small businesses like sewing clothes or a fruit stand to make more money for their families.
“That just shows that if you give them the opportunity, there’s no lack of enthusiasm on the part of the mothers to help and no lack of happiness from the children. One little girl said, ‘Before this, I didn’t know I could help other people and now I want to help other people.’ And I just love that it’s expanding their sense of being able to give back to their community.”
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.