A school of one's own

A B.C. student's quest to bring education to young Afghan girls

Just 11, Alaina Podmorow’s already given a million speeches. She’s also done Canada AM with Seamus O’Regan, CBC’s The Current, starred in a five-minute documentary on The National, and had a private, 15-minute chat with the Prime Minister. But the morning assembly at Davidson Road Elementary School in tiny Winfield, B.C., was even more nerve-racking than meeting with Stephen Harper. The founder of Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan was addressing the entire student body — everyone she knows, “pretty much,” including her brother Connor, 14, who sat at the back with the older kids.

For the past two years, the fifth-grader has been raising money to help schoolgirls in Afghanistan. There, six years after the fall of the Taliban, less than a third of eligible girls are in school. The low enrolment rate is due partly to the fact that the ousted regime began attacking schools as soon as girls finally started trickling into them, and partly because of a simple lack of funds for schools. Where schools, teachers and textbooks exist at all, they’re often of such poor quality that only a fraction of the girls will obtain a decent education. (Only 20 per cent of the teachers are even minimally qualified.)

“That’s where we can help,” said Alaina, standing beneath the orange basketball rim in the darkened gym at her school, in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. She first heard of the plight of Afghan girls two years ago, at a speech by journalist Sally Armstrong. Armstrong, who is a contributing editor to Maclean’s and has written extensively about Afghanistan, spoke about girls’ schools being razed, and the murders and torture of female teachers. Alaina couldn’t believe her ears. When she got home, she climbed into bed with her dad, Dan, who works for an environmental remediation firm, and recounted the speech “almost word for word,” says her mom Jamie, a dental assistant in nearby Kelowna. “What really struck me,” Alaina recalls, “was about girls not getting an education. I thought about what life would be like for me and my friends if we couldn’t get an education.” Almost immediately, she began raising funds for Afghan schools, eventually hooking up with a non-profit group, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

Indeed, if she and her best friends Cass and Mary were growing up in Afghanistan, the odds that they’d be in school are slim thanks to the ongoing conflict and the Taliban’s strict policy of keeping girls out of the classroom. That tradition lives on, even in more progressive centres like Kabul, Herat and Mazari-Sharif. In former Taliban strongholds like Zabul and Helmand, girls’ enrolment is lower than five per cent. Countrywide, the ratio of boys to girls in elementary schools is roughly two-to-one. But by high school, there are four boys for every girl. In over 80 per cent of rural districts, there are no girls in secondary school. In all, just 10 per cent of Afghan girls ever graduate.

Still, more than 3,500 new schools have been built in the past six years. And, according to the Afghan ministry of education, 5.4 million children are now enrolled — roughly five times as many as in 2002. On the other hand, most of the new schools don’t have actual buildings. And threats to teachers and students persist, particularly in the south, where the Taliban are strong. A year ago in the central province of Logar, not far from Kabul — considerably safer than the countryside — gunmen shot dead three female students, hunting them down on the back of a motorcycle as they left their school. In all, over the past year, 105 students and teachers have been killed, roughly 130 schools burned or razed, and over 300 schools closed. Many of those killed were girls and women; many of the targeted schools were girls’ schools.

For the past two years, Alaina’s growing organization — a junior branch of Canadian Women for Women — has been organizing bottle drives, bake sales, car washes, swim-a-thons, penny drives and silent auctions to fund the salaries of girls’ teachers in the impoverished Central Asian country. This year, they’ve raised close to $40,000 — enough money to pay for over 50 female educators at a cost of roughly $750 per teacher. Recently, the Harper government decided to match, dollar for dollar, the amount raised by the Canadian sister organizations, bringing the number of trained teachers to over 500. (The government is also providing $500,000 to a teacher training program in Kabul province run by the senior organization, as well as $5 million to support projects aimed at integrating women into Afghan society.)

To keep up the pace, Alaina has had to miss a lot of school, sighs her mother (earning a fist pump in the air from Alaina behind Jamie’s back). In Ottawa this spring, Harper praised the 11-year-old for “providing hope and support to thousands who were denied basic human rights and brutalized by the Taliban for the simple, heinous reason that they were female.” There, she was also swarmed by visiting Afghan female parliamentarians; the MPs from Kabul drowned Alaina in kisses, leaving sticky red and purple lipstick smeared “all over” her hands and face, she says, scrunching up her nose in mock disgust.

There’s something about kids like Alaina, whose smile still shows the gap of a missing baby tooth, and who haven’t come to accept life’s unhappy truths — poverty, racism and inequality will always exist, for instance — that makes adults melt. At the school assembly, a Conservative political assistant broke down in tears as she handed the young fundraisers plaques from the federal government, recognizing their efforts. So did school librarian Darylene Godkin. “The universe smiles down at them,” Godkin later told Maclean’s. “People flock to them.” (Alaina’s unfazed by the weeping grown-ups that surround her. “Happens all the time,” she shrugs, pushing back a stray wisp of dirty-blond hair.)

After the assembly, Davidson Road Elementary’s 25-member chapter of Little Women followed her into the school’s music room. There, the fourth- and fifth-graders described to Maclean’s what their lives might be like if they were transplanted to Afghanistan, where, they explained, “boys get to go out and play, but girls have to stay home and cook and clean.” “I’d feel trapped because I couldn’t go out without a man,” said one. “I’d have no friends to play with,” said another. “I’d feel dumb, cause I’d have to stay home and clean up instead of going to school,” said a third. “I’d be so-o-o-o-o-o BORED!” one shouted from the back, sparking an explosive round of giggles, and a long list of sports, books and TV shows — especially hockey, Harry Potter, Hannah Montana — they’d miss most.

Alaina, who’s convinced girls in nearby communities to launch Little Women chapters of their own and is talking to kids in Newfoundland and Manitoba about doing the same, is a natural leader. At soccer practice, she’s always first to the ball, deftly controlling the play. In their season opener a few days earlier, Alaina — a centre forward with the long legs needed for downfield sprints — scored a hat trick. (In all, three-quarters of her soccer team, the Lake Country Lynx, are involved in Little Women in some capacity.)

Her concern doesn’t stop at faraway conflict zones; she is moved by suffering closer to home. On the way to meet with, the Kelowna-based Web design firm that donates its services to Little Women, Alaina interrupts her mom’s conversation to tell her the homeless person with the sign “Family abducted by aliens. Grandparents gone. Friends insane.” has moved to a new corner. Perturbed, she watches him from the back window, willing the family’s pickup truck to stop. “We’re always so greedy,” she whispers. Someday, she’ll be making a difference in Kabul and Kelowna, she hopes. First, though: Grade 6.

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