When the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, girls were prohibited from attending school – rendering them illiterate. Some books and films have focused on the heroic journeys of young women who were determined to acquire the power of the pen and the word during those years.
Fast forward to the Afghan police force of March 2013.
With the aim of bringing 150 female police officers from 11 provinces up to adequate literacy levels, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) began coordinating, monitoring and evaluating a programme, called Ustad Mobile, which distributes mobile phones equipped with a learning tool application.
Supporting stability, assisting with elections, teaching women to read, helping to promote the rule of law and respect for human rights and protecting civilians. A tall order for a peacekeeping mission. And one that requires thinking outside the box especially in a country like Afghanistan, challenged by decades of strife, low levels of development and continuing threats to security.
On this eleventh International Day of Peacekeeping, we shine a spotlight on a special endeavour undertaken by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), a special political mission administered by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, in managing a programme of mobile learning for policewomen.
According to UNAMA's Police Advisory Unit (PAU), studies found that between 70 and 80 per cent of the 149,000-strong Afghan National Police – one per cent of whom are women –were unable to read or write.
The “literacy phones” provide reading lessons in the country's languages, Dari and Pashto, through narrated demonstration slides, videos, quizzes and games. In the capital, Kabul, the mobile lessons are also complimented by thrice-weekly teacher visits.
Does it work? Sergeant Aisha Amar Mohamad explained, “When I went out in the field, I used to have to ask civilians for street numbers, now I can read them myself.”
Because they are not tethered to a traditional classroom, the mobile phones allow independent learning – particularly useful for female officers with typical family time constraints.
For some of the policewomen, the experience has had the added benefit of inspiring self-assurance.
Officer Karima Abdul-Ghafar said that it helped her to read the numbers on vehicles violating traffic laws – adding proudly, “After joining learning by Ustad Mobile, I am more confident and consider myself literate.”
As word began to spread about the programme, the UNAMA PAU was requested to expand it to other provinces, as well as to male police and additional women officers.
This is not to say that there are no bumps in the road. In evaluating the programme, PAU came across its fair share of challenges, including technical problems that interfere with learning and more supervision needed for less motivated students.
Although operational duties make it impossible to conduct regularly scheduled sessions, the UN Police began carrying out routine meetings to assist with trouble-shooting, reviewing homework logs and encouraging students who are not making the grade.
Meanwhile, motivated officers see the programme as an opening the door to further knowledge and raising adult education levels.
At Herat Provincial Police Headquarters, Officer Nooria Ghulam Sakhi-Karukh enthused, “I did the Ustad mobile lessons and now want an upgraded programme so that I might increase my capability.”
There has been a ripple effect set in motion by helping the police women to read, ranging from more efficient policing to positive impacts on the policewomen's families, she said.
Afghanistan is a country struggling to emerge from extremely low development indices at the same time that it is taking charge of its own destiny. The top UN official in Afghanistan, Ján Kubiš, is overseeing UNAMA in a period where the foreign military presence is winding down, and responsibility is being handed over to domestic security forces and local government institutions.
In this transition period, UNAMA, a mission designed to help stabilize Afghanistan, has taken advantage of the omnipresence of the mobile phone to make a small but significant step forward in the country's long-term development.