While the Taliban may be on the retreat in Afghanistan, their rule has left an indelible mark on women’s literacy there. Many women who grew up under the Taliban were prevented from going to school, and by the time they reach maturity, they were still unable to read. While women’s education is improving in Afghanistan, the sad fact is that according to the latest figures, only 12.6% of women there can read. While literacy is low in Afghanistan in general, that’s less than half of the overall literacy rate – women are clearly at a disadvantage. The lack of women’s education is still a major issue in some parts of Afghanistan – while girls now make up slightly less than 40% of the school population, in areas that are still under Taliban influence, many families still keep their girls home, either out of fear or due to what are now established customs.
However, Afghanistan’s mobile industry may be about to change that. While Afghanistan is still a poor country, over 18 million people have mobile phones. That’s about 60% of the population, making mobile communications a great way to reach out. In fact, mobile networks have been in Afghanistan since 2002, when Ehsan Bayat, founder of Afghan Wireless, returned there and set up the first mobile service. Now, approximately 85% of the population lives in areas with coverage, and there are plans to increase that further in rural areas.
Under the banner of Ustad Mobile, the Afghan Ministry of Education, in conjunction with Paiwastoon Networking Services, has now launched a set of smartphone apps designed to tackle the illiteracy problem. The software teaches reading in two different languages – Dari and Pashto – and runs on a standard smartphone. Students are able to view videos of teachers writing words and phrases on blackboards, and then can hear how the words are pronounced. There are also questions and exercises that students can use to hone their reading skills.
Speaking to the French news agency AFP, Mike Dawson, the CEO of Paiwastoon said, “We can make the job of the teachers easier by using the video and the audio and the questions and exercises.” He went on to add, “Cell phones are cheaper than any computer and people are familiar with it. And also, the maintenance is much easier.”
In addition to offering reading lessons, the software also has a number of mathematics tutorials, addressing another gap in women’s education.
At launch, the software was rolled out for free to 100 students, but there is an aggressive drive to make it more broadly available. Shop owners and mobile phone operators are being encouraged to preinstall the software on phones, and it may be distributed on CD as well so it can be used in computers. The tutorials are also available on the Ministry of Education’s website, ensuring that the software is being delivered through all possible channels.
The software was developed using $80,000 in aid from the US government. It is hoped that it will help to raise literacy levels to 48% – this is the Afghan government’s ambitious target that it hopes to reach by the end of 2015.