Maryam Naquibullah is a former Afghan interpreter for the Canadian Forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan, now living in Ottawa.
Dear Honourable Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau,
Not only am I the first member of my family to go to university, I am the first to be literate in any language. For this, I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the Canadian people and the government of Canada because of your support to the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre (ACCC) in Kandahar, where I was educated.
I am now studying for a double major in international relations and security at Carleton University in Ottawa. From 2007 to 2014, the Canadian government provided grants and expertise that nurtured the ACCC as a place for women like me to receive a life-changing education. I'm deeply saddened that this incredibly effective school – the school I call my "freedom place" – is now on the brink of closing, and I'm writing to ask the government to support it under your designated funding program for women's empowerment in Afghanistan.
When I was 8, going to school meant a two-hour walk. But that was nothing compared with the fear. The fear of being attacked at any time for the crime of being a girl who wants an education. The fear of a suicide bomber. The fear of never seeing my parents again. The fear that someone might throw acid in my face, and the neighbours might not let me in to wash it off.
Suicide bombers are few, but the voices are many. Voices that follow you during the long walk, that mutter, scream and echo.
"This is a country for men."
"Go and do your chores. Raise the kids."
"What is the point of school when women aren't allowed to leave the house?"
"We own you."
For some of us, these voices continue at home. I learned to hide my textbooks when my uncle came to visit. I worried that family honour might demand that I leave school, ending my career before it began. I worried about being sold into marriage to cover a family debt.
But a woman with an education has a voice, and a woman with a job has influence. She supports her family – her uncles, her brothers, maybe even her father. And slowly, things start to change. The neighbours who think that educating a woman is about as valuable as educating a dog start to change their minds when they see a house with a car and a garden. All because a woman is working.
Since 2006, the ACCC and its sister organization, the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, have offered professional education to more than 4,000 women in Kandahar, and enabled more than 2,500 employed graduates to support more than 12,500 family members. All for a total investment of less than $600,000 from the Canadian government. These schools have been a beacon for the women in Kandahar for almost a decade, educating most of the women now working in professional jobs. But that beacon is about to go out.
I urge you, as Minister of International Development, and your fellow members of Parliament to please support our recent proposal – the Women's Skills for Rights and Empowerment Program – submitted to Global Affairs Canada. This multiyear program would reach more than 4,500 women in Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul provinces, and create lasting partnerships between Afghan civil-society organizations and international non-profit organizations.
I understand that there are many important priorities for the Canadian government at the moment, and that there is a huge need to help the refugees who are fleeing conflict and extremism. And I also hope you will spare a thought for those organizations that are standing up against the roots of extremism, and that are preventing people from fleeing their homes in the first place.