SOLA: First Boarding School for Girls in Afghanistan

SOLA, The School of Leadership, Afghanistan, also meaning ‘peace’ in the Pashtun language was founded by Shabana Basij-Rasikh in 2008. It is an Afghan-run non-profit organisation dedicated furthering educational and leadership opportunities in Afghanistan, particularly Afghan women. SOLA enrols both middle-school and high-school girls  in a comprehensive curriculum centring on civic leadership skills, English literacy, and cultural self-awareness.

Sola’s mission revolves around the maxim: “Educate a boy, you educate an individual; educate a girl, and you educate her family, her community, and her countrymen.”

Back in 2001, Afghanistan’s student population was below the one million mark, but 14 years later, the number has risen above 8.3 million, nearly 40% of which are girls. Over 14,000 educational institutions have been opened and a national curriculum has been established after 30 years of conflict. Despite the vast increase in girls getting education in Afghanistan, education remains a challenge for girls and women. Only 12% of Afghan women are literate, and among school-age children, 38% (4.2 million children, the majority of them girls) do not have access to schools. Violence, tradition, and poverty all conspire—in different parts of the country—to make education for girls a nearly unattainable goal.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh defied the Taliban when she was younger; under this regime, girls going to school and receiving an education was considered a crime. She dressed up like a boy to walk to school and get her education. Now 24, she has created the first girls boarding school in Afghanistan, SOLA, with 35 female students from 14 of Afghanistan’s provinces representing all major ethnic backgrounds, as well as 42 alumni who have gone on to secondary and tertiary scholarship opportunities at boarding schools around the world.

Having gone to high school in Wisconsin and attended college in Middlesbury (Vermont), Basij-Rasikh said in an interview that it was because she was able to see Afghanistan from at outsider’s perspective that she realised the extent of the problems in Afghanistan. Despite being aware of the problems going up, such as the lack of access to education and basic health care, she didn’t quite understand the enormity of these problems until she arrived in the United States.

This idea that access to education is considered a basic human right is hard for me to understand. How do you call it a basic right when millions of millions of girls around the world don’t have access to education? Isn’t it a privilege from their perspective? These questions compelled me to think of my next steps. Now that I am that lucky Afghan woman, what are my moral obligations? At one point it became very apparent that the best use of my skills and my passion for Afghanistan—and awareness of my privileges—was to become an educator.

Basij-Rasikh believes that the most pressing problem in Afghanistan is the tension caused by ethnic discrimination. She believes that by creating this boarding school and encouraging girls to attend from all over Afghnistan to live together, to learn about different cultures and respecting one another, and to celebrating their similarities and appreciating their differences, she will be able to teach acceptance and better the next generation. At SOLA, during orientation, the girls would sign an honor code which represents the zero tolerance for ethnic discrimination at the school. The message here is that they are here to learn and to be the future leader of Afghanistan.

Basij-Rasikh aims to grow the school to 340 students and become the first-ever internationally accredited boarding school in Afghanistan. To her, the number 340 is key because there are 34 provinces in Afghanistan and her vision is to have students from all of them, to communicate a message that everyone deserves an equal opportunity.

I think this is a phenomenal model, and I think it can be replicated in a lot of conflict and post-conflict countries. Women are naturally peacemakers. They are the ones who raise children and teach values to their kids. To teach those women to be really thinking big, thinking bold, thinking broadly and inclusively is so important.

For more information about the school and how to get involved: click here

An inspiring interview with Shabana Basik-Rasikh given by the National Geographic: click here

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