A group of girls and women pore over their books by the light of the weak winter sun pouring in through a window. The tiny classroom has neither electricity nor heating and the students huddle close together on toushaks, cotton-stuffed mattresses popular in Afghan households, to keep warm.
"When it starts to be more cold, we will have to stop classes for a few months," Maryam, their teacher, tells The National as she sits at the head of the classroom in Markaz-e-Amozish — Local Centre for Learning — a community-based school in Kabul's destitute Dasht-e-Barchi district with more than 250 female students.
The students in the classroom range in age from 12 to 40. Zakia, the oldest and also the most enthusiastic, recalls the day she decided to go back to school.
“I was in the market and lost my way, and I couldn’t even read any of the sign boards. I was so embarrassed and scared to have to ask for directions back to my own home,” she says.
She says she now realises the importance of education for women.
“Working women should be literate so they are not cheated out of their hard-earned [money] just because they can’t count or keep record.”
For many of the older women at Markaz-e-Amozish, their education was cut short during the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The younger ones were born into communities that upheld conservative patriarchal views and opposed women’s education. Schools such as Markaz-e-Amozish, have provided these women with safe spaces to learn and develop.
“When I moved back to Afghanistan from Iran in 2003, I knew I wanted to work with Afghan women and help improve their lives,” says Masouma Qambari, the school's founder, as students recite their Dari lesson from tattered second-hand books.
Ms Qambari’s family fled to Iran when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, just before she was born. With her parents’ support, she returned to Afghanistan with skills in midwifery and maternal health care.
“However, once here, I realised that the women needed more basic assistance, like literacy and vocational training,” she says.
She worked at an aid organisation for a few years until she had enough money to launch Markaz-e-Amozish in 2011.
According to recent report released by Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan, schools such as Markaz-e-Amozish, known as community-based education centres, or CBEs, have been effective in increasing enrolment and improving test scores, especially for girls. One study in Ghor province found that these schools has succeeded in eliminating the gender gap in enrolment and in dramatically reducing the gender gap in test scores.
“The main reason many girls attend a CBE rather than a government school is often distance,” says Heather Barr, a senior researcher on women’s rights at HRW.
Girls are also denied admission to government schools if they are considered too old, she says.
Other challenges include unsafe routes to school, lack of female teachers and high tuition fees. CBEs are often supported by foreign donors and the community.
Ms Qambari says one of her early students was 12-year-old girl from Bamiyan who was being forced to drop out because of her marriage to an older man who did not approve of her getting an education.
“The community, including neighbours and relatives of the husband, stepped in and counselled him to allow her to attend my school, and he reluctantly gave in,” she says. “Today, six years later, this girl is preparing to enrol in university.”
It has been a long road for Ms Qambari and her school, which has survived attempts to shut it down by people who do not believe girls and women should have an education.
“In 2009, when I was still trying to register the school, a parliamentarian, who I won’t name, held a gun to my face asking me not to work on this project,” she says. “I, of course, went to the courts and persisted [with my project], and he is in prison today for different crimes."
Corrupt officials assumed she wanted to set up the school to siphon aid money, and so they tried to extort from her.
“They were not very pleased when they realised that my intentions were genuine,” she says with a laugh.
Her face turns solemn as she pleads for support to keep the school going. Funding is starting to dry up, and there is little help from the government.
“We need trained teachers, equipment and other resources, but most of all we need something as basic as an electricity connection,” she says.
“Recently, Unesco [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] donated four computers to our school, but we don’t have an electric connection to operate them.”
Government officials say they recognise the benefits of community-based education but cannot afford to support it.
“There is not enough for the existing formal schools — we can’t add more. We need to be honest,” a provincial education official told HRW researchers. “There is no government plan to fund CBEs. The foreigners pay for them.”
Ms Barr accepts that government is overwhelmed, but says gender discrimination continues in the state school system "in terms of the number of girls’ versus boys’ schools”.
There is also a clear gap in the allocation of resources, and a failure to prioritise infrastructure vital to girls' schools, such as toilets and boundary walls.
“These are disproportionately affecting girls’ access to education; so resistance to supporting CBEs, which we know are particularly effective at reaching girls, may be another form of discriminatory decision-making,” she says.
The Afghan government did develop a policy in 2012 that was supposed to facilitate community-based education in the government school system. However, it was never implemented.
“The government is now in the process of revising that policy, and the key will be to see whether the new policy is an effective one that prioritises girls and is implemented,” Ms Barr says.
Meanwhile, Ms Qambari’s school continues to foster hope among the young girls and older women from Dasht-e-Barchi. When asked if they see a future president of Afghanistan among them, the students in Maryam's class responded: “Why not?”