Matiullah Wesa is on a mission to transform education in Afghanistan. He’s 22 years old and has spent the past eight years opening libraries, giving out books, advocating for young girls, and getting communities excited about learning.
But for all his enthusiasm, he faces daunting challenges. Recently Wesa answered a few questions for global citizen about his daring work.
Afghanistan is a country with a female literacy rate of around 20%. Millions of girls are prevented from even attending primary school, 50% of existing schools lack a building and resources, and the Taliban and other groups relentlessly attack girls who try to get an education.
Many other schools are “ghost schools,” meaning they receive funding but don’t actually exist because officials just steal the money for themselves. Corruption like this has been endemic in the country since the US-led invasion in 2002.
Over the past year, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have gained greater control of the country and the government has splintered into different factions. “In 60 percent of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, state control doesn’t exist beyond a lonely government building and a market,” according to the New Yorker.
In other words, it’s hardly a safe or stable place to be promoting an agenda as radical as the education of girls.
Wesa keeps going, though, and he’s not even discreet about it. He wants the world to know what he’s doing. He wants Afghan people to be proud of girls with knowledge and he wants girls to demand their right to an education.
A scan of his Twitter account shows picture after picture of books being delivered and girls being encouraged to learn.
All of his projects are modest but they provide opportunity and structure to kids who might otherwise never get the chance to finish even a few years of school.
He’s opened seven volunteer-run libraries across the country and corralled tens of thousands of books through his organization the Pen Path. Last year, he started a book drive on social media and was able to gather 20,000 books to replenish his various libraries. He’s also working to restore the country’s education system by reopening shuttered schools.
In a few videos, Wesa hands out backpacks to groups of young girls. They’re empty sacks, flat and piled on the ground, but each holds vast possibility and you can sense the boldness of Wesa’s actions, the way the girls all seem apprehensive but excited about the situation.
This totally transparent effort to bring equality to girls is dangerous for Wesa. The Taliban regularly threatens people for even hinting at girls learning.
So why does he go through all the trouble? Here's a brief Q&A he did with Global CItizen.
What is motivating you to do the work you're doing?
After the fall of Taliban in 2001, my father began to build schools for children in our village in Kandahar, but unfortunately the schools were destroyed a year later by Taliban. I moved to the city and continued my education there, but unfortunately the children from the four surrounding villages, including my own, were left without school or any means of learning. I missed my friends and felt sorry for them as they did not have the same opportunities to go to school. That is when I decided to take action and began building new schools and reopening banned school so other kids could also receive the same education I could in the city.
In 2009, I started working and helping kids by building libraries and schools, distributing books and school materials for kids and so on. It helped me cure the pain in me that I had received that day when my friends and I wept in front of our school as it was burned to the ground.
What obstacles do you face?
Relying on my family income and not having any other financial support system is stopping me from doing more to educate the children of my country, especially girls. If I had some sort of financial and professional support, I would have been able to do more and even change the education system in war torn parts of Afghanistan. Poor security and corrupted government are also other obstacles on our way to improve education system in war torn regions in our country.
How optimistic are you that girls will receive greater freedom?
I hope that one day all Afghan girls will get the equal opportunity of a good education because I believe that the gift of knowledge is every human being's right and should be pursued by everyone. Education is humanity's best tool as it allows us to give more freedom, and brings peace, prosperity, and a better future to the people of war torn countries.
That is why we worked very hard, every day and night to give girls the opportunity to get the basic education so they could have brighter future.
What support do you need from the international community?
Our expectation from international community is to help us improve the educational system in Afghanistan and help us give all children, especially girls, the equal chance of a quality education. Children in Afghanistan want to live in a peaceful and safe society like all other kids around the world. They would like nothing more than to be able to go to school like other kids, to learn how to read and write, but unfortunately, there are either no schools for them to attend or they do not have any school materials to learn with.
I would like to ask the international community to help us reset the education system here in Afghanistan and help me build new schools, libraries, and education centers so our children can learn and prosper, as it is their basic human right to live up to their full potential.