Afghanistan: Circle of Women opens girls' school

Women's Feature Service
Project Wonkhai - the NGO's first undertaking - is a girl's school in Wonkhai, a village in Afghanistan's Wardak province.
Not only will Circle of Women's work allow girls to improve their lives and contribute productively to their societies, their efforts will also present useful data that, over the years, will reveal the effects of educating girls in developing countries.
There's a Pashto proverb which means 'Drop by drop, you make a river.' And that's what inspires Circle of Women, a young, non-profit organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that is dedicated to educating girls in developing countries. By building one school at a time, the Circle of Women aims to make education available to every girl who wants one, with the belief that this is the best way to support positive, global change. "Circle of Women feels that it has the opportunity and privilege of position to empower women in countries where gender equality is not an established right," says Megan Dempsey, founding member.

This school is almost complete and will open its doors to as many as 1,200 girls at the secondary level in March next year, when the Afghan academic year begins.

"Given the fact that Afghan women suffer from among the highest rates of illiteracy and lowest standards of health in the world, Afghanistan is not only a country in need of change, but also a country where significant changes in women's rights can be made," says Dempsey.

Co-founder Cristina Ros feels their approach to sustainability is what allows the NGO to make a unique impact. "Circle of Women's model is to have as little overhead and operational costs as possible. Instead we aim to innovate ways in which learning is a current and fixed asset," she explains. "Our efforts are geared toward lasting sufficiency gained through knowledge, and we firmly believe in promoting access to learning to provide the tools by which people can make their own, most beneficial changes."

It's a group of students at Harvard University that created the Circle of Women in 2006. In 2002, Clotilde Dedecker, another founding member, began a coalition of girls' high schools in Buffalo, New York, to raise funds on behalf of school construction in Afghanistan. Her experience provided the impetus for her fellow students to take similar action. "After becoming an officially recognised student group at Harvard, we realised that the Circle of Women needed to seek its own non-profit status to complete its goal of supporting women's education in the developing world and ultimately building its first school," adds Dempsey.

The group's decision to build their first school in Afghanistan was partly influenced by Dedecker's previous involvement there, and also by the fact that they were meeting a demand. Nearly 1,200 female students at the nearby elementary school that Kids4Afghankids (US-based non-profit organisation) built and Dedecker's group helped to fund, were seeking secondary education. With a supportive community in Wardak that has protected the school against any attacks, Circle of Women began constructing the secondary school earlier this year on land provided by the village elders.

Circle of Women is successfully fund raising to build the school house, with the goal of raising $120,000 for construction costs. "We've given ourselves the challenge of combining fund-raising with awareness-building, so each fund-raising effort also functions as a small-scale information campaign," says Britt Caputo, a founding member. "We've also tried to involve and motivate several different demographics. This year, for instance, we ran a "30 under 30" campaign, during which 30 women recruited 30 other women (all under 30) to donate US$30 in 30 days. Kind of a tongue twister, but we got packets of our information and about Afghanistan out to a lot of people, many of whom have since asked to get involved or made suggestions about our work."

By keeping their operating costs minimal, Circle of Women is working hard to ensure that donations yield the maximum impact. Members and collaborators work on a volunteer basis so that the donations support Project Wonkhai directly. Not only do the donations help build the school, they indirectly support the local economy by funding construction materials, wages of labourers and school supplies.

From their base in Massachusetts, the group keeps a close eye on the school's progress in Afghanistan through a variety of contacts. Khris Nedam of Kids4Afghankids, who built the nearby elementary girls school, offers advice while their main on-site collaborator, Fahima Vorgetts, travels to the construction site, hires and communicates with the workers and oversees general construction issues on the group's behalf. Nedam and Vorgetts, both award-winning humanitarians, have years of experience working in the social sector in Afghanistan.

Since her involvement in Project Wonkhai, Vorgetts has been maintaining an online journal on the Circle of Women website (, updating it regularly with news about the progress of construction. In her journal, she also points out the enthusiasm for learning that is prevalent among the young girls in Wardak. "I visited the girls elementary school that Khris Nedam built several years ago," writes Vorgetts, "The girls were so eager to learn that even some of the students who had already graduated had come back to school this year to repeat the same class. They were begging me to build a secondary school for them to continue their education. They were saying there is nothing else for them in their village. If they stay at home, they will be married off. So they would rather repeat the same class. But, they insisted, you can only repeat a class once, so they worry about next year."

Despite the fact that Project Wonkhai is in a country that is politically volatile, the path to the school's construction has been fairly hassle-free. Vorgetts writes that while conditions are dangerous, there is no fighting in Wonkhai, where the villagers say they will protect the school with their blood.

"For the most part, there have been very few complications," says Dempsey. "The group has taken multiple precautions to ensure that our donor's contributions are securely transferred and used solely to support the construction of the school."

Now that construction is almost complete, Circle of Women's focus is on developing teacher training programmes as well as a model for self-sustainability. "We will probably achieve this in a vocational after school programme, where specialty teachers will teach students how to make goods such as jewellery, silk, noodles and jam," says Caputo. "Profits from selling the goods made in class will contribute to the school's operational costs." Adds Ros, "This model of self-sustainable education shows how learning can both, immediately and in the long term, provide women with the capacity to create the change they most want for themselves."

The Afghan government will supply teachers, who the Circle of Women will encourage with monthly salary supplements, initial textbooks as well as school supplies for the students. If the demand for the school exceeds capacity, admission will be offered by lottery.

With their first project successfully underway, the group is looking forward to growing as an organisation and building further connections. Caputo mentions that several college-based groups in the US have been formed this summer to raise awareness and funds for Project Wonkhai, and the group is also exploring the possibility of expanding their focus to a project in India.

"As the women of Circle of Women have grown, learned more about the non-profit world, and realised our commitment to our school in Wonkhai, the organisation has grown in leaps and bounds," adds Dempsey. "Now that its founders graduate or are about to graduate, I would like to see the organisation make the transition into the post college world that its members are transitioning into, and connect to our cause more women with a similar passion about women's education."

February 2009

By Ziana Qaiser

Source: Women's Feature Service