Studying was the last thing most women in Afghanistan spent time on until a couple years ago, after the Taliban regime was ousted. But now they have a chance to become literate, and a Japanese nongovernmental organization is helping.

Although religious and social challenges remain, the literacy program is expected to help Afghan women build confidence and play essential roles in improving their war-battered country, where their involvement in society was strictly curtailed under Taliban rule.

“Our success depends on how much they can enjoy learning,” Yukitoshi Matsumoto, chief of the Kabul office of the Tokyo-based National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan, said at a recent briefing in Tokyo.

NFUAJ, a private body supporting the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, launched the literacy program in Afghanistan in 2003. Only 30 percent of the population is literate.

The NGO has established community learning centers modeled on the “terakoya” used in Japan for children’s education between the 14th and 18th centuries. Terakoya, mainly set up at temples, were facilities where samurai and monks taught children reading, writing and arithmetic.

As of Aug. 20, 180 Afghan women and girls were studying at such community centers, which are also called terakoya.

In Afghanistan, the students usually enroll in a nine-month literacy course. They use three textbooks published by the Afghan government and can be certified as literate by the Education Ministry after completing the course.

Thus far, 60 Afghan women have passed graduation exams at the terakoya and gained official recognition as being literate.

“Since the launch of the terakoya, Afghan women have become able to leave the house more often, communicate with others and feel they are a crucial part of their country’s future,” claimed Yoko Yamashita, a NFUAJ member.

Most Afghan women rarely venture outside their communities. Thus the terakoya must be located near where they live so they feel it is safe to attend them.

In addition, all men, including NFUAJ staff, are banned from entering the schools. This means NFUAJ must find female teachers, or women with adequate academic backgrounds, in each community.

Despite these difficulties, the group said it will accept all religious and social constraints on its activities.

“We should not change the customs there. We should respect them,” said Yamashita, who also works at NFUAJ’s Kabul office.

NFUAJ continuously monitors the opinions of female students and teachers about the terakoya program.

“My biggest enjoyment now is learning at the terakoya,” said a 15-year-old student in a message to NFUAJ’s Tokyo headquarters. “I hope to teach at a terakoya in the future.”

“There are an increasing number of girls and women joining my class,” said a 25-year-old woman who teaches reading, writing and the use of sewing machines. “Now I need a bigger classroom.”

The Afghanistan literacy program is part of NFUAJ’s efforts to promote its World Terakoya Movement. Since 1989, it has provided 740,000 children and illiterate adults in 43 countries with educational opportunities.

As of July, more than 780 Afghans, including 465 females aged from 7 to 55, have attended the classes six days a week at 19 terakoya in three villages, including Istalif, in the hope that literacy will help them better support their families.

Compared with urban areas, rural Afghanistan suffers a shortage of schools. NFUAJ cooperated with the Japan International Cooperation Agency in establishing some terakoya.

The program also includes vocational training for bread-winners, as well as English classes. The latter is in response to growing demand as the international community becomes increasingly involved in the reconstruction efforts in the country crippled by civil war and the U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

NFUAJ, which procures its funds through public donations, said it hopes to establish terakoya throughout Afghanistan.

In the next few years, it will open classes at 120 locations in and around Kabul, staff said.

All terakoya are run by their committees, whose members consist of both men and women.

Although exchanging opinions with men is difficult for most Afghan women, who are not used to talking with men other than their husbands, NFUAJ regards the challenge as an opportunity.

It hopes that by overcoming this difficulty, Afghan women will become able to raise their voices, gain the confidence to express opinions and eventually have hope for the future.

“Terakoya must always be where women can feel safe to visit,” Yamashita said. “We are sure all Afghan women will be proud and confident studying at them.”

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