As you exit the airport you drive under a sign saying: “Welcome to the ancient civilization of Bamiyan”. Enormous keyhole-shaped recesses in a cliff face are all that remain of the town’s most famous landmarks: the monumental Buddhas destroyed in 2001.
But you quickly realize that Bamiyan is littered with the remnants of this country’s other conflicts. On the craggy mountaintops there are ruined castles from another age whilst at the edge of waving fields of wheat are the hulking remains of Soviet tanks.
History casts a long shadow over Afghanistan but this morning I get a rare glimpse of what could be a different, more optimistic future.
In the Shirin Hazara Girls School, 27 girls – heads demurely covered by white scarves framing open faces brimming with confidence – sketch out their plans.
“I want to go to university”, says 18 year old Aquila, “If I can get an education, I can help my family.” Aquila wants to be a nurse. Her friend wants to be a doctor. Someone else mentions being an engineer. These girls are not afraid to be ambitious!
Save the Children is helping them realise their dreams, training their teachers, providing English and computing lessons: preparing them for a life beyond their village.
There can be no doubt about their eagerness to succeed. Many of the young women here walk two hours to school and back everyday. That in itself is remarkable but so too is the fact that they are in the classroom at all.
During the Taliban years, hostility to girls’ education meant that many missed out. But even after the Taliban were ousted in 2001, getting girls back into the classroom has not been easy. Traditions mean that girls, sometimes as young as nine or ten, are married off before completing their education.
Lack of development is also a major factor; if the schools are too far away, the young women cannot get to class. Not surprising then that Afghanistan has the worst gender gap for education in the world.
But change is happening at the Shirin Hazara School. The number of girls has tripled in the past decade; lessons are arranged in double-shifts to cope with the growing numbers of these bright young hopefuls.
No turning back the clock
They understand very well the responsibility on their slender shoulders. “If we become doctors and nurses”, explains 18 year old Nakquia, “then we can help our whole community and everyone will benefit.”
Whatever political deal is hammered out in Afghanistan over the coming months, it is clear that girls like this must be part of the future. There can be no turning back the clock.