Meet Razia Jan, a Rotarian by membership, a humanitarian at heart, who is changing the lives of girls and women in Afghanistan. A member of RC Duxbury, RI District 7950, USA, she is also the winner of the CNN Top Ten Heroes, 2012 Award and multiple Rotary International Peace Awards … all for her relentless work in educating girls.
Eight years ago when Zabuli Education Centre was instituted with 101 girls in Deh’Subz, a village near Kabul, “fathers never counted them as members of the family. They were treated like objects. They would leave out the girls and only mention the number of boys they had,” she says. But today things have changed. “The school has 500 girls who learn maths, science and languages and 500 proud fathers,” says Razia Jan, founder of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation, a non-profit organisation that is improving the lives of women and children in Afghanistan through education.
Razia graduated from a college in the US and began her own dry-cleaning unit there. She returned to Afghanistan in 2005 to establish her dream — the Ray of Hope Foundation. She worked “tirelessly” to raise funds and gain the community’s acceptance as “schools built with community participation are less vulnerable to attacks.” Villagers initially rejected the idea of a girls’ school. Four men warned her to change it to a boys’ school saying, “Boys are the backbone of Afghanistan.” But she firmly replied, “Girls are the eyesight of Afghanistan. You are blind; let me help restore your vision.”
Feeling that it was important for the father to understand that girls are precious, she ensured that whenever a new girl was enrolled, she was “first taught to write her father’s name in three languages — Pashto, Dari and Persian.” The paper, with his name, is then sent to the father. “Many fathers come to school the next day and thank the teachers with tears of joy in their eyes. They are proud of their four-year old daughter who can write her father’s name,” she said.
Razia is excited as “this year my first batch of students is all set to graduate,” and is extremely grateful to “each and every Rotary club who has supported us all along.” In order to become employable, the girls need to specialise in the field they choose. “We have a plan for that! With help from various Rotary clubs we have built a vocational training centre.
Girls will be trained in computer science, midwifery and teachers training with English as their second language for two years.”
She recalls the story of a 16-year-old girl “whose 60-year-old father wanted to marry a 16-year-old girl from a neighbouring village. In return, he wanted his daughter to marry a 70-year-old man there. Some sort of an exchange offer!” The girl was strong and did not give in. “Every other day she would come to school with a broken nose, bruised hand or leg.” Whenever she was questioned she would reply, “I fell off the chair.” Razia was amazed to learn that “this young girl turned down the marriage offer, no matter what. The girl fought such a huge battle without any help” and in the end she won! “But unfortunately she could not stop her father from marrying the 16-year old.”
“We opened a school for girls in Afghanistan to help break the cycle of poverty through education. By empowering these girls with education, we are giving them a ray of hope to protect themselves from poverty, malnutrition and hunger. But this young girl made it clear that education makes you strong and it gives hope for a better tomorrow,” Razia adds.
“I cannot stop because a school was burnt in a neighbouring village. I cannot stop because children are being ruthlessly murdered in another country. Each day is a struggle … a good struggle.” she says. “I am very small … I have only one school and I hope and pray that it lasts forever.”