One morning in 2002 when Matiullah Wesa was in fourth grade, armed militants rushed into his school — just a few open-air tents — in Maruf, Afghanistan, and put guns to the teachers’ heads.
“They ordered us to stay silent or else they would shoot us,” he told Global Citizen over Facebook. “We were scared and frightened, then they started setting our tents on fire. Children were screaming and crying and we were all running towards our homes.”
Wesa’s father was one of the chief advocates for the school and he was hoping to one day develop a building to house the classrooms.
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The school was targeted because it was premised on a radical concept — education for both boys and girls.
In Afghanistan, especially in regions dominated by the Taliban, girls have often been denied the right to pursue an education, so much so that only 17% of the country’s women over the age of 15 are literate, and this number varies across regions.
This inequality was more pronounced during the Taliban’s control of the country between 1996 and 2001, before the US invasion and before a whole new era of instability, conflict, and change.
After the Taliban was removed from power, pioneers like Wesa’s father seized the opening afforded by the war’s rupture to promote progressive ideals, and educational opportunities soon began to flourish, according to the UN.
Between 2001 and 2011, the number of children in school jumped from 900,000 to 8.3 million, largely because the Taliban’s control had been weakened, the UN reports, and international aid money poured into the country.
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Even more significantly, girls accounted for 39% of the national student body in 2011, compared to around 0% under the Taliban’s rule, the UN found.
But conditions were not yet safe in 2002 and promoting girls education often faced violent opposition.
After Wesa’s school was burned down by the militants, his father promised to continue fighting for the students. Wesa has six brothers and four sisters, so his father had a personal stake in promoting education. But if he only cared about his own kids, he could have developed a homeschool curriculum. Instead, he cared about the fate of kids everywhere.
“He called all the tribal leaders and elders and told them that school is their children’s future and should be protected as their own homes,” Wesa recalled. “He pledged that he was prepared to sacrifice everything to ensure that children were educated and they had access to school.”
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Not long afterwards, the family’s home was burned down, their possessions were looted, and they were forced to flee to the town of Boldak to the south.
The dream of accessible education for girls didn’t perish in the flames, however. If anything the family’s resolve hardened.
Now, more than a decade later, Wesa is carrying on his father’s legacy through a massive country-wide campaign to establish schools and libraries in areas affected by conflict.
As a teenager in 2009, he established Pen Path, a volunteer-run organization to work on that mission. Since then, 1,400 volunteers have reopened 54 open-air schools, established 15 libraries, secured scholarships for 3,600 orphans, and expanded access for marginalized communities and students with disabilities.
But the threat of violence remains ever-present. In 2014 and 2015, more than 1,200 schools in 11 of the most volatile regions were shut down because of violence or threats from the Taliban, according to the AP.
Throughout the country, only 41% of schools have buildings and many children are unable to make it to a school because they’re too far away, according to Human Rights Watch.
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And more than a third of all school-aged children are unable to go to school, Al Jazeera reports, exposing them to child marriage, forced labor, radicalization, and more.
In neighboring Pakistan, more than 25 million children are unable to attend school partly because of the Taliban’s coercion.
The most famous example of the terrorist group’s wrath is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head and left for dead on a school bus in Pakistan by Taliban agents after defiantly pursuing her education.
And the challenges remain daunting. More than 9.3 million Afghan citizens need humanitarian assistance, and hundreds of thousands of refugees were recently expelled from Pakistan, according to Al Jazeera.
Like Yousafzai, Wesa is unafraid of the Taliban and is determined to bring education to as many children as he can. Global Citizen also campaigns on helping children in emergency zones get access to education and you can take action on this issue here.
“The pain of losing my school encouraged me and inspired me to fight for this cause and work hard for it,” he said. “We will make this campaign international and help every single child to have access to education”
A brighter future
Spreading education in Afghanistan is a rugged, grass-roots affair. In the remote areas where Wesa works, there are rarely grand openings of magnificent buildings with government entourages applauding.
More often than not, small household libraries holding a few hundred or thousand books are unveiled to a limited audience to prevent the Taliban from finding out.
Or there are events where backpacks are handed out to girls in a field. So far, Pen Path has distributed around a million backpacks and sports gear to students, according to Wesa.
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Or a meeting is secured with wealthy patrons who can donate books. Recently, Wesa met with the cultural advisor to president Ashraf Ghani, Asadullah Ghazanfar, who donated thousands of books.
Such victories, however small, are momentous for people who have struggled to help children go to school.
Vast portions of the country, including areas where Wesa works, are controlled or contested by the Taliban or, more recently, ISIS.
On Wesa’s social media accounts, there are countless images of tough-looking men on motorbikes holding signs supporting girls education.
The bikes have a subversive element to them. Oftentimes, they’re linked to the Taliban who use them to carry out assaults.
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PenPath volunteers, instead, use the bikes to spread girls education.
This is perhaps his most significant achievement — changing cultural attitudes.
The volunteers travel to remote villages to champion girls education. Men go door-to-door explaining the benefits of letting girls learn and a lot of people come to agree, Wesa said.
A New York Times profile of Wesa noted that it’s taboo to record the names of girls who take out books in libraries, showing how gender disparities still dominate day-to-day life and how removed girls are from independence.
Wesa is working to bring girls’ education out in the open. In areas where opening a school would be too risky, volunteers help to establish underground schools.
“These schools support students who cannot afford education or are unable to attend school because of security risks,” Wesa said.
He thinks 2018 will be a breakout year for Pen Path. He recently earned his Master’s in Political Science in India and he has expanded his network of connections, including with the UN.
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In the year ahead, Wesa said he wants to expand wheelchair assistance for students, promote physical and technology education for girls and boys, start higher education initiatives, open training centers for teachers and volunteers, and build branches elsewhere in the world.
He also wants to get more government support and be involved in government meetings.
Ultimately, though, he’s laser focused on Pen Path’s core mission — opening libraries and helping girls learn.
“Our campaign, our mission, is to change the history of Afghanistan and make it a different nation that’s known for education and for its bright students,” he said. “I want every kid to be educated.”