May Rihani, director of girls' education at the Academy for Educational Development, went to the remote Balochistan province of Pakistan several months ago to see how girls' schools she had helped start were doing. She found a success story -- not only for girls, but also for their mothers.
The Academy for Educational Development is a private, nonprofit organization founded in 1961 to help solve critical social problems throughout the world through education, research, training, social marketing and policy analysis. The Primary Education Quality Improvement Project Rihani oversees has been going on for three years, funded by close to $3 million from the Dutch government.
Rihani, who has worked for 22 years to improve girls' education in developing countries, was not sure the formidable obstacles this project faced could be overcome. With 6.5 million people, Balochistan is Pakistan's biggest and least-developed province. It is a conservative Muslim region. In rural areas, only 2 percent of the females are literate. Girls and boys cannot attend school together, and only female teachers can instruct girls.
The Dutch-backed project goes in and builds schools for girls and trains teachers, who then are paid by the government. The operation of the schools stays with a local women's committee.
One of the first steps in setting up a school is to form those women's education committees. "The most important principle is to involve them at all levels . . . whether they are literate or illiterate," Rihani said. She spent two hours talking with committee members on the first stop of her most recent visit. "I challenged them to tell me why girls' education is important. I heard, `Until we sent our girls to school, we did not see changes in our lives. Once we sent them, we started seeing changes in our own lives.' "
One mother told her that by creating the education committee, the women in the community got their first taste of power.
" `Our voices have to be heard by the school and by the teacher and by representatives of the government, so we women are gaining power,' " the mother told Rihani. "Another woman said, `Now they hear our voices on the schooling of our daughters, they will have to hear our voices on other things.' I always heard women say, `We want to send our daughters to school because we want them to have a better life than us,' but this is very revealing and quite new," Rihani said.
Schools for girls are not a priority in these communities. "We learned we have to work through local nongovernmental institutions. We strengthen the local institution and we create leadership, and they in turn work with their communities and convince them to build schools for girls. Once this happens, we come back again and train women teachers."
The girls' schools offer primary education through fifth grade. Before this project got underway, government-approved schools existed in some areas but because of the schools' remoteness, school supplies such as books never arrived and teachers would show up for only a month or two and then leave. Even the Dutch-built schools are very basic, without electricity or running water.
The project decided to select women to become local teachers but found there were not enough who were educated to fill the positions. Additionally, the government had set national standards for teachers that were difficult for rural women to meet.
"One of the things we did was persuade the government to change the standard for teachers in rural areas." The project then overcame another obstacle: The communities did not want their rural women traveling to teacher training centers. "We said, `Okay, we'll bring the training to you.' We did mobile training," Rihani said.
Some of the teachers trained several years ago by the schools project have become master field teachers. "Their job is to keep moving and go and spend a day or two a week to train teachers and support them on the job," Rihani said.
Balochistan now has 7,206 primary schools for boys and 2,416 for girls, including the 360 primary girls' schools added during the past three years by the project. The project has trained 422 female teachers for its schools. Almost 15,000 young girls have gained access to primary education as a result of the Dutch effort, with a 10 percent increase in their participation in schools. Rihani has run girls' education projects in more than 20 countries and said this one is "absolutely one of the most successful.
"Every country I work in, once you educate the girl, the life of the family changes totally," she said. Nutrition and health improve, child and maternal mortality drops.
She remembers meeting with villagers in Mali five years ago and telling them about research showing that if mothers are educated, fewer children die. A father challenged her: "Are you telling us that mothers who know how to read and write would love their children more than mothers who don't?"
She told him it had nothing to do with love and everything to do with how an educated mother can care for a sick child. Literate women will not be intimidated by basic health care clinics that give instructions in writing. The educated mother will follow the vaccination schedule.
That's why the child will survive, she told him. "The tone of his voice changed. He said, `What you said could be true.' It made him reflect that the child might not die because the mother is educated. This is the power of educating girls."
The international community is watching to see how the military takeover in Pakistan will play out. If Pakistan is to have a future worth having, programs that educate girls cannot be sacrificed to Islamic fundamentalists, such as those who have taken over Afghanistan. For a nation that's broken, educating its girls is one of the best fixes there is.