To Serve Female Students, Our School Goes Underground
A few years ago, in November 2017, publications everywhere were spreading the news that Afghanistan’s Girl Robotics Team won the Entrepreneur Challenge at Europe’s largest robotics festival. This was one of many examples of Afghan women showing the world what they could do when given an education and an opportunity.
Today, women and girls in Afghanistan have been barred from attending school due to their gender. This is an abomination. The world should not ignore this national assault on women. We at Applied Ethics have responded with the safest approach possible to meet the educational needs of our sisters in Afghanistan by creating an “underground school.” Here is the story.
For over a decade, our nonprofit had sought to advance peace through education through our online language school, Pax Populi Academy. Then following the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, Applied Ethics suspended its educational programs offered in Afghanistan through our Pax Populi people-to-people peacebuilding program. Before long, the Taliban prohibited all women and girls from getting a formal education beyond the 6th grade. Our organizational connections with Afghanistan run too deep to permit us to sit passively on the sidelines. After months of preparation, and under tight security, in October, we launched a new “underground” version of our online school, Pax Populi Academy. To strengthen confidentiality, we do not use the name Pax Populi Academy.
Why are we doing this? For over 13 years, education has been the primary means by which Pax Populi has sought to advance peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s policy of denying education to girls and women is an act of gender-based violence and an attack on peace inflicted on one group singled out by gender. Afghanistan’s women and girls are not only being deprived of education, but they are also being forced into home isolation to strip them of any autonomy, power, or potential for self-development.
For Pax Populi, our educational programs focused on teaching English to Afghan students to encourage cross-cultural understanding and to help these students avail themselves of the educational, economic, and cultural benefits afforded through fluency in English. Conditions in Afghanistan have changed. It is insufficient to teach Afghan women English when they have been deprived of an education in all other subjects. We felt ethically compelled to try to step into the gap by offering a broad educational curriculum in which English is but one element.
The People in People-to-People Peacebuilding
Pax Populi is a people-to-people peacebuilding program in which people from around the world volunteer their services to those in conflict zones to contribute to developing peaceful, flourishing societies. In creating our underground school, our model has changed. Afghans are in leading roles in responding to the conflict in their midst. We continue to welcome international volunteers, but our school depends largely on Afghans helping Afghans. They are the people in “people-to-people peacebuilding.” Their commitment confirms the value our school has to them.
The Current State of Non-Sanctioned Schools for Girls in Afghanistan and AE/Pax Populi’s Commitment to Security
Pax Populi is not the only organization offering schooling for girls and women in Afghanistan. Despite Afghanistan’s ongoing ban on female education, according to news reports, there are likely dozens or more non-sanctioned female educational initiatives currently active in the country. These programs are administered both by Afghan and international organizations; some offer in-person classes, while others operate online. There may be other underground schools besides ours, but there is little information on such initiatives. We are pleased that other organizations are standing up for women in Afghanistan. However, nothing is certain with a regime operating outside the bounds of internationally recognized legal standards. Their apparent tolerance of independent schools could disappear whenever and wherever.
At Pax Populi, we have chosen a path of maximum security. We acknowledge that our school has been created, and we share some information on its features, but we will reveal nothing that could put our students and their families at risk. Our top concern is the security of students, teachers, and administrators in Afghanistan. We acknowledge that our school exists, but beyond that, we are minimizing the risks to school members by adhering to strict — even extreme — measures to secure the confidentiality of information of anyone in Afghanistan associated with our school.
What follows are some of the significant general characteristics of our school.
The Role of Parents
Before a student can enroll in Springtime Academy, we provide a detailed description of our program and the security precautions required for participation. Parents must confirm that they support having their daughter attend our school and agree that members of the student’s household will all maintain the confidentiality of our school. No student enters our school in isolation. Behind every student is a family that recognizes the importance of education for all.
The Practical and Personal Goals of the Academy
Our academy aims to meet three practical life goals:
- Meeting Education Standards for High School: We have designed our school to meet international standards for high school.
- University or Workforce Ready: Graduates of our school will have the educational qualifications to attend college, university, or trade school. Alternatively, our graduates should have the education needed to participate in the contemporary workforce in local, international, or online companies.
- Civic Engagement: Social conditions permitting, graduates of our school will have an educational foundation that equips them for active engagement in the civic life of their community and country.
When the day comes that Afghanistan is ready to avail itself of the immense capacities of its women, our students should be among those well-prepared to contribute to rebuilding the country.
A Mission to Affirm the Dignity and Support the Wellbeing of Our Students
While the ruling regime embodies a culture based on the abuses and denigration of women and girls, our school is built on the foundational recognition of the intrinsic value and dignity of all people, and girls and women in particular. Our school’s mission is to deliver on this principle through education. And yet, according to numerous reports, the current assault on the rights of women and girls is having a devastating toll on their mental health. Our academy has been established to create a caring learning community that affirms the value of our students and supports their well-being. In this sense, our academy is more than a school; it is an educational refuge where young women can find community beyond the oppressive solitude of home confinement.
A Pilot Program with a View Toward Expansion
After months of preparation, our academy launched the pilot program for the 2023-2024 academic year in October 2023. We began with a small cohort of ten students generally between the ages of 17 to 19 years of age and in January 2024 increased the number to 25. During this pilot phase, we are testing our administrative systems, developing our curriculum and pedagogical methods, and assessing the students’ experiences. The insights from this pilot period will be used to guide us in expanding our student body and improving our programs. Our aim is not only to expand the number of students, teachers, and administrators but to add new grade levels, each with an appropriate curriculum.
Our Current Curriculum
For our current cohort of students, we developed our curriculum to meet international standards for high school juniors while also fulfilling local educational expectations for country-specific courses such as history. Our curriculum comprises courses in the following subjects:
- Elementary and intermediate English language
- Conversational English
- Optional math tutoring
- Introductory computer science
- Research and writing
Academic Calendar and Schedule
Classes meet five times per week. Our current school year runs from October through June.
Our School Faculty
Here is the essential profile of our current group of teachers.
- Five of our teachers are Afghans.
- Among our Afghan teachers, two live outside the country, and three live in Afghanistan. One of those teachers is also a student.
- Three of our teachers are non-Afghans who live in the United States
Introducing “A.”: One of Our Teachers in Afghanistan
In 2018, “A.” (not his real name) studied English at Pax Populi Academy. He is an intelligent and disciplined person who progressed rapidly. He took the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and received a good score that opened the door for him to receive a scholarship to a master of engineering program at a foreign university. Not long after he returned home to Afghanistan, the Taliban regained control of the country. We at Applied Ethics/Pax Populi were deeply touched because A. never forgot that he had benefited from his participation in Pax Populi Academy, which led him to contact one of our administrators with an offer to teach in our school.
A. is committed to women’s rights and is distressed by the conditions of women and girls in his country. He is working in his chosen field of engineering, and, for many, that would be enough. Not for A. After work, he dedicates himself to teaching young women because even under the current dire conditions in Afghanistan, he believes that education offers the best chance for young people to improve their lives. In our school, A. has been teaching both elementary and intermediate English. He wrote, “My love for teaching English has motivated my desire and determination to make the most of the educational opportunities I received. Now, it is my turn to help make a difference in the lives of the women and men of my country through education. Despite our challenges, I strongly believe in the possibility of a better world where everyone can learn and live in peace.”
The Road Before Us
Building our school is a daunting challenge, especially under the troubling conditions in present-day Afghanistan. The need for schooling for girls is massive. With adequate resources, we will expand and improve our program to meet the needs of more students. We need much better technologies and administrative systems. We need more teachers and administrators, and better training and on-boarding programs. As we look ahead, we will draw on our early lessons to guide us in meeting the educational needs of our students, expanding our educational offerings, and improving the quality of our educational experience in our school. We need your support as volunteers or as donors. To donate, please click here.