I’m sitting on a traditional stuffed mattress called a toshak in the corner of a small room in Kabul, with at least a dozen sets of eyes focussed on me.
I’m here to talk to 16-year-old Beheshta* and her entire extended family have come to listen.
Beheshta pours us cups of hot tea and I ask her if she would like to be able to go to school.
“I think it is too late now for me to go to school and study,” she replies. “People say that it is not my time to learn anymore.”
She looks around at her young nieces who are sitting beside her. “I am older than the other children – everyone would laugh at me.”
Beheshta’s family fled the fighting in Afghanistan shortly after she was born. They lived in neighbouring Pakistan for seven years, where they couldn’t afford to send her to school.
They returned more than a decade ago when the country became more stable, but by then they considered it too late for Beheshta to start her primary education. Instead, she helps with her brothers’ market stall and looks after her nieces and nephews.
“When I was young, I used to hope I could become a doctor, “Beheshta tells me, “but now I just hope to become a good person.”
Learning saves lives
Shockingly, in 2015, 31 million girls of primary school age are missing out on their primary education around the world.
This matters for many reasons beyond simple justice. For example, we know that for each year that a girl receives an education, their future wages can increase by 20%, and that if all girls completed their primary education the number of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth would fall by 66%, saving 189,000 women’s lives each year.
Today, as International Women’s Day is celebrated across the globe, member states of the United Nations are involved in preliminary discussions which could make a critical difference for women’s rights and the future of girls like Beheshta.
These discussions could be the most important negotiations for women and girls in history.
The action/2015 movement, of which Save the Children is a member, is calling on the world’s leaders at a crucial summit in New York this September to commit to delivering on women’s rights; not just on access to education but ending child marriage and sexual violence against women and girls, by repealing discriminatory gender laws and much more aside.
Here in Kabul and in provinces across Afghanistan, Save the Children is training and employing female facilitators to teach children about their rights.
By working closely with children and families in this way we can not only increase enrolment of girls in schools, but empower the women who work for us to be agents of change in their own communities.
Is it too late?
Beheshta attends one of our centres for working children in Kabul. “My favourite thing about the centre is that it is friendly and the facilitator is very kind,” she tells me “All the children there treat each other with kindness and speak to each other with respect.
“I think the most important thing I learned there is that children should be listened to. Parents should hear the voices of their children.”
Save the Children is working hard to effect change at a community level, but we need international change at the highest level if we are to reach all those in need.
Before I leave Beheshta’s house, I talk with her mother about enrolling her in school when the academic year starts in March. She echoes Beheshta’s own fears that it is already too late.
“I feel as though my children have lost their chance at education, because of the fighting and the poverty we have suffered. Instead of thinking about education they have been thinking about working and paying rent,” she says. “I would be happy for Beheshta to go to school but is it possible for her to learn anything now?”
Everyone turns to me for an answer.
On this International Women’s Day 2015, I would like world leaders and women and men around the world to put themselves in the room with Beheshta, her mother and her young nieces. How will we respond?
*name changed to protect identity.