Why this Veteran is Investing in Girls’ Education on Memorial Day
Christopher D. Kolenda
By educating and empowering girls in the developing world, we might eventually send fewer Americans into combat overseas.
Rocket attacks were relentless. Most exploded harmlessly into fields or against the nearby mountainside. Some wounded or killed Afghan civilians. On occasion, the 107mm rockets would strike the outpost. A few of my paratroopers had suffered light wounds. If the rocket attacks continued more casualties were inevitable.
The rockets were being launched from the inaccessible east side of the Kunar River, in Afghanistan’s rugged Saw valley. Ethnically Pashtun and Kohistani, the population eked out a living as subsistence farmers in the isolated stretch of northeastern Kunar Province.
In the summer of 2007 that area, situated along the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was volatile. My unit had only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks and knew very little about Saw. Some Afghans said the villagers supported the enemy. Others were not certain. We figured that they must be Taliban.
An intrusive search of the village was the textbook response to the rockets. I was not convinced. Lieutenant Colonel Sher Mohammad, a Pashtun from western Afghanistan and the commander of the local Afghan troops, suggested that his unit coordinate a visit instead.
Returning that evening, he informed me that Americans and local militia had previously done night searches of houses in the village, with conduct deeply offending the locals. The rockets were retaliation.
“Did you learn anything else?” I asked.
Sher Mohammad related the rest of his encounter, but I stopped him when he mentioned children.
“They want education for their children,” he said. “Right now they have only a three-walled building. No roof. No supplies. Girls go in the morning and boys in the afternoon. Education is very important to them.”
We saw an opportunity to build a bridge with this community. My unit had been receiving donations of school supplies from American families. We collected three truckloads. Sher Mohammad returned to the village.
The next day, something unusual happened. The Saw Village elders walked fifteen miles to the outpost. They carried with them stacks of thank-you notes written by their children, using the notebooks and pens we sent them.
Touched by the huge impact of such simple gestures, we both decided to do more. As the relationship developed, I asked the humanitarian group, Central Asia Institute (CAI) to consider supporting a school in the village. In 2008, CAI completed Saw School, which became a catalyst for more across Naray district.
That day began a personal friendship with the Saw community that has continued for eight years. Their rocket attacks stopped.
The Saw elders understood all too well what more than a quarter-century of war and violence had cost. For many of those years school was suspended as fighting raged up and down the Kunar River Valley. Some boys went to school in extremist Pakistani madrassas and returned as fighters.
Saw village is a microcosm of a wider problem.
Militancy and terrorism are symptoms of bigger diseases. South-Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and portions of the Middle East have the lowest rates of female literacy in the world, and are normally near the bottom in gender equality. Such countries are consistently among the most corrupt and violent. The likelihood of slavery is high. They top the “fragile states” index.
Where ignorance, bigotry, misogyny, and predation are unchecked, violence and extremism soon follow.
U.S. forces are engaged in combat in many of these hotspots. Other places have a very high likelihood of spiraling. Our military plays a critical role in keeping terrorist groups at bay. But the diseases must be defeated, not suppressed.
The protection and empowerment of girls is one of the most cost-effective ways to address the disorders that perpetuate conflict.
But countries that educate, respect, and empower girls and women are far more likely to be on the right side of political stability, human rights, and responsible and accountable governance. Rwanda, for instance, has emerged from genocide into a stable, well-governed state. It is also ranked seventh out of 142 countries for gender equality.
The people of Saw, including the local Taliban, have paid a heavy price defending their community against Pakistani militants. Sadly, some attacks have succeeded. Extremists have murdered a teacher and headmaster. They partially destroyed the school with a bomb blast on February 6. The people of Saw are determined to rebuild.
The story is similar in many Afghan villages. Afghans have been fighting to keep their girls and boys in school. In 2001, under the Taliban, only 800,000 children were in school, nearly all of them boys. Today nearly nine million children are in school, over a third of them are girls. This is one of the greatest advances in education in modern history, and is the best hope for Afghanistan’s future.
As part of my Memorial Day observance, I donated to Central Asia Institute to help Saw Village rebuild the school. CAI’s schools are sustainable because they emphasize community ownership and sweat equity. (See why I am a returning donor.)
A better peace is the ultimate goal in any conflict. Accomplishing that involves much more than just guns and bombs.
This article is dedicated to my Paratroopers who were killed who were killed in that far away land serving America and helping to make that corner of the world a better and safer place: Major Thomas Bostick, Captain David Boris, Staff Sergeant Ryan Fritsche, Sergeant Adrian Hike, Sergeant Joshua Kirk, Specialist Jacob Lowell, and Private First Class Christopher Pfeifer. An earlier version of this article was published by the Central Asia Institute.