Activist creates classrooms on the move for Afghan nomads

Maryam Amarkhail, in traditional Kochi style , (on the left) with two Kochi children. (Photo: Maryam Amarkhail)

For centuries, the Kochis have been on the move, following the seasons with their livestock in tow across Afghanistan. The pastoral nomads from the Pashtun community have historically kept to themselves. Maryiam Amarkhail, a Kochi activist and journalist, wants to use education to bring new opportunities for the women and children of her community.

Twenty-five-year-old Amarkhail is from Maidan-Wardak province in central Afghanistan, but spent her early childhood with her family as an immigrant in Pakistan. “We lived in a refugee camp in Peshawar. Our economic situation was very bad. I would go to school for half a day and then sell lemonade at the bazaar with my father,” she told Geneva Solutions.

“It was during that time that I learned how to face my problems head on.”

Fast-forward to today and Amarkhail has launched several pioneering education and women’s business initiatives in Afghanistan. Two of these projects, Basia bazgara shaza (Independent Farmer Women) and Zar-Tar (Golden Thread), aim to lead the housewives towards economic independence by helping them launch small home-based businesses.

She has also led several education programmes for girls in war-torn, remote areas. Among her latest initiatives, Amarkhail created tent mobile schools for children from her own Kochi community.

Campaigning for education

Amarkhail preparing bookbags to give to children. (Credit: Maryam Amarkhail)

“I was nine years old when I returned to my homeland. But there were no girls' schools in our village in Maidan-Wardak,” she explained.

“Although I was upset, I did not lose my motivation and I started to teach other girls in the village. Eventually, I decided to create a girls' school for our village.”

Amarkhail, with the help of her father, discussed the issue with the head of the village and then the district governor. Finally, the provincial government opened a primary school for girls in the village.

Three years later, however, the school was set on fire by the Taliban. Maryam moved to Kabul and continued her studies there where she graduated with a master’s degree in literature.

“I had the chance to come to Kabul and achieve my dreams, but I have never forgotten the girls who do not have access to education. That's why I started a campaign for girls' education in 2012,” Amarkhail said.

She would travel with her father and brother to Afghanistan’s war-torn provinces where she would talk to families' elders, heads of villages, Imams and even with the Taliban about the importance of girls’ education.

“Until 2018, I provided books, stationery, and school bags for 40,000 students, which I paid for out of my own pocket.”

Creating schools on-the-go

Kochi schoolchildren hold up their books in one of the "mobile classrooms" launched by Amarkhail. (Credit: Maryam Amarkhail)

The Kochi population, around 2.4 million, is mostly deprived of its citizenry and civil rights, with illiteracy being a contributing factor. “Less than 10 per cent of Kochi population is literate,” Amarkhail said.

In 2016, she launched two mobile schools for Kochis. As they move in spring and fall from one region to another, the mobile schools accompany them. “When spring comes, our people decamp to colder provinces like Kabul, Wardak and Bamiyan, and with the coming of the fall, they move to tropical provinces like Nangarhar and Laghman,” she added.

“We choose a central location for the schools. Then we hire temporary teachers from the region and give them a salary to teach the Kochi children. Currently, our mobile schools  have a total of 480 students. The annual cost of each school is $6,000. I pay some of the cost myself and the rest has been donated by the Afghans living abroad. We talked with the Taliban and got their permission to keep the schools open,” Amarkhail said.

In that same year, she was called a “heroine” by the former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani.

Work for women’s empowerment

After graduating from university, Amarkhail pursued a career in journalism and became a news editor and radio producer. But she always wanted to do more to empower women. Without giving up her day-to-day job, she decided to launch her first project, the Independent Farmer Women institute, Basia Bazgara Shaza.

She had travelled to remote areas where she held training workshops for housewives and helped them to run their own small businesses, such as poultry farming, and make money. Then she established Zar-Tar in 2012.

“The aim of this institution was to create jobs for housewives who are not allowed to work out of the home. We have worked with around 250 women from different provinces, providing them with sewing machines and other factory supplies. They make clothes, for example,  and then we sell them in markets.”

In 2019, Zar-Tar expanded to carpet weaving, which Amarkhail said helped create jobs for another 100 women in different provinces.

All of these practices have not only helped empower women, but have also brought many cultural benefits, she said.  The women produce mostly traditional Afghan clothes, which is like an art and requires delicate work that must be done by hand.

However, the situation has changed dramatically since the Taliban takeover and as Afghanistan’s economy teeters on the brink.   “With the Taliban regime, our production is at a near standstill and 70 per cent of the women are jobless again,” Amarkhail said.

“Our dresses were mostly bought for weddings and other occasions. But now people are in a bad economic situation and cannot afford to buy them.” They can only hope that the economy will improve.

Afghan women cannot prosper without the support of the men who are in their house. These men can be their father, brother or husband. Amarkhail's superhero is also her father.

“My father supported me step by step. He accompanied me on all provincial trips, in meetings with villagers and government officials, and so on. He is not ashamed of me but he is proud of me.”