To mark World Humanitarian Day, Anita Haidary, explains what’s it’s like to be a female humanitarian worker – and how she got to do the job she loves.
This photo you see is one of the few that survived all the moves we made to escape the war in Afghanistan. My father, who is holding me used to work for Save The Children – and was always a strong supporter of girls’ education. Unlike other fathers, he never differentiated between son and daughter. My mother, who is holding my baby sister, is illiterate – but was determined her daughters wouldn’t be the same. In between collecting wood and water to help my parents, I loved to learn and pass on my knowledge to others.
At age 16, I opened a home-based teaching class for girls and women. It brought me great happiness to see young girls learn to write their name for the first time. When you feel that every moment of your life is learning, your life becomes more purposeful. Even from a very young age, I knew my purpose in life was to help children learn, no matter who they are or where they come from.
When I joined UNICEF Afghanistan’s field office in 2015, I was the only national female staff member. This wasn’t surprising, knowing that I was the only girl in my university class to study maths and physics, and one of the few girls in my year to finish secondary schooling. When systems and institutions are stacked against girls from the very beginning, opportunities for the development of female professional leaders dry up.
During a visit to a girls’ school in Nangarhar, I asked a classroom of eager students what they wanted to be when they grew up. I felt emotional when they said, “you”! I asked them, “Why not? You have better opportunities than I had as a refugee. You live in your own country, have a nice school with good facilities and your education is free. Set your targets high and don’t give up. Hard times will make you stronger than before.”
As you can see from the photo above, children are the most positive people in the world. The smile bursting from this girl’s face was infectious. She was so excited and told me the new bag was something she desperately needed but couldn’t afford to buy. Her happiness reminded me that I too used to yearn for a school bag. After grade 5, I had to be home-schooled because there were no schools for refugees near where I lived – and refugees weren’t allowed to join Pakistan’s formal education system. I used to envy the children who passed me by in their smart uniforms, swinging their bags full of books. Now my job helps me make sure all children have a safe space to learn with well-resourced teachers and classrooms. Moments like this drive me to achieve more for children, no matter how remote or hard-to-reach.
I asked a classroom of eager students what they wanted to be when they grew up. I felt emotional when they said, “you”!
I’m fortunate to have supportive parents and to work in an organisation that has encouraged my development. I’ve lobbied for greater gender balance within my department – which is now at an acceptable level. In the outside world, my commitment to furthering children’s rights and interpersonal skills gives me room for acceptance and respect. As I look out on a sea of hopeful faces during school visits like this, I’m certain that UNICEF’s support for girls’ education in Afghanistan is paving the way for a new generation of female leaders.
On World Children’s Day, we celebrate the rights of children to be in school learning, safe from harm and able to fulfil their full potential. Looking into my daughter’s eyes, I’m hopeful for her generation.
We have made great strides in school enrollment, classroom reconstruction and teacher training. Over the last 18 years (2001-2018) school enrolment has increased from 1 million to 9.6 million. Yet, Afghanistan still has a long way to go. Conflict, poverty and child marriage have denied 3.7 million children an education – and 60% of them are girls. I believe in a brighter future for all children and continue to work for them.
As told to Samuel Waterton, Communication Officer, UNICEF, NYHQ.
Anita Haidary is a UNICEF Education Specialist in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. For more stories follow us on Instagram. #WorldHumanitarianDay #WomenHumanitarians