In a place with little technology and few creature comforts, where students have to walk more than an hour to class, there lies a school at the bottom of a valley in Afghanistan. Rustam School is the only high school in the area and over half of its students are girls. Since girls usually make up only a third of all students, it is an incredible feat.
Even though the school is small, made up of seven stone classrooms and six big tents, the principal strives to make a difference in students’ lives, giving them a pep talk each morning. Besides being a small school, the buildings have no heat, computers, or copy machines. Most materials have to be written out and foreign aid has long since stopped. Most teachers have more students than books.
Despite the challenges, the school is thriving. 92 percent of the 2017 graduating class was accepted into college, two-thirds of which were girls. The accomplishment is even greater considering that most of the students are children of subsistence farmers, only five percent of which can read.
The Rustam School owes part of its success simply to its format where they mix boys and girls in the same classroom. The principal, Mohammad Sadiq Nasiri, believes that is essential for learning. “Men and women are equal. They have the same brains and the same bodies. We tell these boys and girls, there is no difference between you guys, and you will all be together when you go to college, so you need to learn how to respect one another,” he said.
Girls at the Rustam School are also highly successful, especially in traditionally male-dominated subjects like STEM. Many of the girls love math and computer science, which they go on to major in later in college.
Ever since the Taliban’s rule over Rustam has broken, girls have flourished. Violence has slowed almost to a stop and the girls aren’t confined to tradition like other parts of Afghanistan. They are highly motivated and set to be the first women to finish high school in their families. For years under Taliban rule, girls were required to stay in the home, their only lessons being sewing. Even some of the female teachers at Rustam did not learn to read or write until they were eleven or older. Mrs. Joya, one such teacher, encourages young girls to achieve more. “I had to start from zero. We tell them about the Taliban and what they did to us, and say, ‘You have an opportunity now, you should take it. They’re listening. They hear about it at home, too, from their mothers and aunts,” she said.
The most surprising factor that contributes to Rustam girls’ success is most likely the support from parents. Most of them are eager to send their children to school, whether they are girls or not. In fact, it is often the boys who are kept behind to help with the field work. In a country long determined to keep women down, this small school is a step in the right direction.