Posted: Friday, May 25, 2018 – 12:38 PM
Razia Jan, who has dedicated her life to empowering young girls, was especially pleased to receive the 2018 Meredith MacRae Empowerment Award from The Leadership and Education Fund for the Betterment of Women (LEF) earlier this month at the home of board member Brooke Knapp.
Against many odds and strong local resistance, Jan opened the Zabuli Education Center (ZEC), an all-girls school in Deh’Subz, Afghanistan 10 years ago, a product of her Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation.
The school now has 640 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and is readying its fourth graduating class. Classes are now fully enrolled through 2020 and there is a waiting list of 300 for kindergarten.
“The reason I started the school was to educate and empower girls, so this is a unique award that fits my mission perfectly,” says Jan. “I’m honored.”
Opening her school, Jan initially faced opposition from a male community that didn’t believe in educating girls. “They gave me an opportunity to turn it into a boys’ school since boys counted and girls didn’t,” she says. “I refused. It was a hard job; but we survived and I persisted.”
The school that started with 100 girls now has a 98 percent passing rate and an Institute of Midwifery, founded last year. “It’s for girls who’ve graduated high school who aren’t married and who want to become something,” says Jan, also a 2012 CNN Top 10 Hero.
The program addresses serious needs in Afghanistan, Jan reports, with a death rate of 40 percent for women in childbirth and an infant mortality rate that claims many children at 6 months. The program helps both the students and the women they treat, learn the importance of being healthy and taking care of themselves, Jan says.
Of the Institute’s initial graduating class of 22, nine students earned scholarships to the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. “One of the beauties of our school is that the classes are in English,” Jan says. “So our school is now a unique feeder to the university.”
Now living in the U.S.—“since the school is stable” —Jan visits four times a year for two months at a time. Much of her time is now occupied with speaking engagements and fundraising.
The Meredith MacRae Empowerment Award comes with a $7,500 honorarium for the foundation which Jan says is “tremendous.” The school, free for students, provides meals—since many of the girls have little to eat when they return home at the end of the school day—uniforms, books and writing supplies. “Many of the girls come early and stay late, so we have heating and electricity,” says Jan, “amenities so many don’t get at home.”
A bus service is provided to get the students to and from school, since all live with their parents in seven villages six to seven miles from ZEC. “Things happen on the roads and girls are maimed or killed,” adds Jan.
What drives Jan, she says, “is the look on a child’s face. This place is heaven for them where they can be themselves. At home, many of them are treated like servants, they get hit and slapped and their fathers and brothers say, ‘press my clothes,’ ‘bring my tea.’ We’ve tried to show these men that having educated daughters helps the whole family.”
She and the school have been able to change the mindsets of many fathers brothers and uncles. The foundation encourages families to replace dowries and end early marriages. “We are seeing girls getting married at 18 or 19 instead of 10,” Jan explains.
“The first thing we teach girls is how to write their father’s name,” says Jan. “They take the paper home to show their dad and he says, ‘she can write my name and I can’t.’”
Jan recounts the story of a man who approached her, telling of his two, 2-year-old granddaughters. “He said they were really smart and needed to be registered now for kindergarten. So I think we’re changing minds and people are looking ahead.” She signed the girls up to start classes in 2021.
ZEC also offers a sponsorship program where donors can “adopt” a student and receive letters and pictures, progress reports “and be part of a child’s growing up and success,” Jan says.
Since its establishment in 1999, LEF has sought opportunities to support women and initiatives enhancing female empowerment worldwide.
For more information on Razia’s Ray of Hope, visit https://raziasrayofhope.org. —Steve Simmons