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In a country in which education is under threat and often can’t reach rural regions, prerecorded lessons over the phone offer a life-changing chance

Fatima Ali and her three children stand outside their home in Herat, Afghanistan. Fatima grew up in Ghor province, where working as a shepherd, marriage and motherhood prevented her from getting an education.Photography by Stefanie Glinski/The Globe and Mail

For most of her life, Fatima Ali could only count to 25: the number of animals she had to take care of as a shepherd girl.

When she was barely in her teenage years, living in Afghanistan’s Ghor province, she was told she was too old to work away from home, was not allowed to go out alone and was soon married off. Shortly later, Fatima became a mother and thought she’d missed her chance to ever learn to read or write.

Now in her 30s, with three children, she’s finally getting the chance.

A new venture, developed by Partnership-Afghanistan and Canada (PAC) in collaboration with the University of British Columbia and World Vision, has started to bring education to women in Afghanistan’s most remote communities through mobile classes. Daily prerecorded phone calls deliver a set of sessions teaching reading and writing skills in Dari, a Persian dialect and one of Afghanistan’s main languages. And all the women need is a pen, some paper, a textbook for learning the alphabet and a cellphone. The calls focus on letter pronunciation and, once the alphabet is memorized, simple reading exercises. Since the program launch, 200 women have participated, with a total of 76 lessons available.

With the majority of Afghans still living in rural areas, often with relatives working in neighbouring countries, simple cellphones – even if shared among family members – are common for both emergencies and to stay in touch with family. Throughout most of the country, reception is now available through a number of Afghan telecommunications providers.

Fatima, with a green head scarf tossed over her black hair, crouches on a thin pillow on the concrete floor outside her house’s living room at 9 o’clock every morning, books spread out in front of her, waiting for her cellphone to ring. Inside the house, her children sit mesmerized in front of an old TV. “The lessons take me through a book and teach me how to pronounce letters and words,” she says proudly through a Dari translator.

Fatima listens to pre-recorded classes on her cellphone.

In Afghanistan, a country mired in conflict for decades, education continues to be under threat. Last year was the deadliest yet for civilians, according to a report from the United Nations, and while peace talks between the Taliban and United States are under way, the Afghan government has largely been left out. Hundreds of schools across the country are closed because of conflict or occupied by armed forces. There were 192 attacks on schools in 2018, up from 68 the previous year, according to Unicef. Bleak literacy numbers confirm just that: Only 38 per cent of adults are literate, says UNESCO, with the female rate dipping to 17 per cent – most of them living in urban areas.

The country has seen a surge in violence since April, when the Taliban announced their annual fighting season, and in areas in which war is raging, education takes a backseat. For Fatima, living in a village outside Herat with a conservative husband who largely restricts her to the house, mobile education is her only chance.

“It’s exactly why we came up with the idea,” says Shahnaz Qayumi, who was born in Afghanistan, left in the 1970s and now lives in Vancouver where she teaches early childhood education at Langara College and serves as a board member at PAC, a Canadian humanitarian organization working toward sustainable peace and development in Afghanistan.

“It’s the most useful way to deliver education to rural women who are locked behind thick walls in the dominant male society and are often discouraged to leave the house for the purpose of education. We adopted our approached to the environment and to cater to families significantly affected by the stress and violence of war,” she explains.

Herat province, overlooking neighbouring Baghdadis province. Many remote parts of Afghanistan still don't have schools, and children displaced by war and natural disasters, like the child below, often lack the chances to access them.

But while the software required to run the program was quickly developed with a team of UBC’s tech experts, setting up LIVES (Learning Through Interactive Voice Educational System) on the ground was a different story. Recording lessons and finding a telecommunications company to partner with proved to be a lot of work.

What was even more challenging, however, was making the program accessible to the women. “You wouldn’t believe what we had to deal with,” says Arezu Popal, who works for World Vision, the aid agency that rolled out the program.

Most women resided in dangerous areas or were displaced. Some, she says, lived on unpaved roads as far as 15 hours away from Herat, where the program is based.

Then there was the matter of persuading the husbands to share their wives’ phone numbers. "They were suspicious. It took a while for them to understand that every time their wives’ phones rang, it was only a recorded voice of a woman.”

All calls are made through Roshan, an Afghan telecommunications company with antennas across most of the 37-million-strong country, which charges the program a monthly subscription fee of about $1,600. “The system makes the call, but lessons and time slots are still assigned manually,” project manager Fahim Tabesh explains, pointing to a long spreadsheet of names and numbers on his computer screen. “They all pick up. The commitment is incredible.”

Hawa Ebrahimi, a 25-year-old mother of five who grew up in a village surrounded by the Taliban, made that commitment herself just a few weeks ago. “Back home, we didn’t even have a road and definitely no school,” she explains through a Dari translator from her current residence, a spacious room with thick carpets and pillows lining the wall, in Herat.

Hawa Ebrahimi sits in her house with her children and a neighbour, who is also learning to read and write through mobile classes.

Abdul Qayum Rahimi, Herat’s governor, says that he’s seen real spirit when it comes to education in his province. “Everyone wants to advance and progress and people – mainly women – strive for education. It’s what makes this place one of the most developed areas in the country.”

But while Hawa’s husband supports his wife’s education – he even comes home every evening asking if she studied and needs help with her homework – it hasn’t been as easy for Fatima.

As a child, she grew up with a dominant father, who kicked her mother out when she was unable to give birth to more than one child. She sees similar patterns in her own husband, a man her father chose.

“He’s sick at home these days with hepatitis and he doesn’t see the benefit of an education,” Fatima explains. Holding on to her books and her small black cellphone, she says it doesn’t matter to her, though. “I’m going to be literate and can maybe even help my children with their homework one day. For the first time in my life, I’m doing what I want to do.”

Fatima sits in her living room with her three children and some of the neighbour kids.