We all know it: 2016 was a terrible year. From the refugee crisis to increased insecurity in Afghanistan, to political conflict around the world, it felt like we went backwards this year. Despite all that could rob us of hope, one of the many stories that inspired me is that of the success of a coding school in Afghanistan. Established in 2015, Code to Inspire has given dozens of Afghan school girls the opportunity to learn programming and coding skills, while becoming economically and socially empowered.
I decided to reach out to the organization’s fearless leader Fereshteh Forough for an interview. Read our conversation below and be inspired.
What makes me proud is having established a social good enterprise by opening the first coding school in Herat, Afghanistan, where we are teaching 50 girls from local high schools coding in a very safe and joyful educational environment.
Tell us about the things students learn at Code to Inspire. What is the curriculum like?
This is a free after-school program for female students where we provide them a safe place to come and enjoy learning in a comfortable, educational environment. Code to Inspire offers different programs for students such as coding with HTML, CSS, Java Script and mobile application development using Unity and Java Script frameworks.
What initially attracted you to pursue computer science and eventually, master code?
Coding is a language like any other language and a great tool for communicating. I love the creativity and problem solving aspect of technology, which helps you to become a better critical thinker.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your work?
I faced many challenges starting from the first day I thought about making this happen. I wanted to start a school that girls could join without worrying about security and cultural barriers.. that is no easy feat. Preparing the right papers/documents here in New York to operate as a non-profit and to raise the needed funds for our coding school were also huge tasks.
Despite the challenges, I am persistent and energized because every day, I learn something new and meet inspiring people who share their knowledge with me. It gives me hope to know that 50 girls in Afghanistan are learning and growing everyday.
You are a role model for the students at Code to Inspire, in addition to countless others around the world. Who is a person that inspire you?
I grew up in a family of eight kids. Living life in a place where they treat you as an unwanted guest was not a pleasant experience. Even accessing a basic right like education was a big deal. Through all that, my main inspiration was my mother. She learned how to make dresses which she sold to buy us school supplies.
Additionally, she always emphasized education and wanted her children to have the best (education) possible. During that difficult time, she found a way to bring income to the family and help us go to school.
What do you think about the situation of women in Afghanistan?
I was born as an Afghan refugee in Iran during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I finished my high school there. A year after the fall of Taliban, my family and I moved to Herat, where I was able to get my Bachelor’s degree in computer science. There, I noticed that most female students who graduated from the program couldn’t find jobs and stayed at home after their education. There were many reasons for this.
Many families prefer that their daughter become a teacher because it is considered a more appropriate job for women. There are only so many opportunities for teaching computer science.
If a female graduate of the computer science program gets a job offer outside her hometown, there is a big chance her family won’t agree with her to leave the city – due to insecurity. Young women can’t travel by ground, even if they have a male companion. And not many families can afford to purchase plane tickets for their daughters. Furthermore, it is not part of our culture for a woman to live in another city by herself, unless she has a trusted family member living with her. All these factors limit women.
However, women’s situation has improved in the past several years. Less than a million students- very few of them girls- were enrolled in schools during the Taliban’s rule. Today, millions of girls go to schools. There are hundreds of public and private universities. A 2014 Kabul University study found that 40 percent of STEM students are females, and that percentage is probably higher, now.
Nevertheless, 85 percent of women in Afghanistan do not have formal education and are illiterate. Only 24.3 percent of Afghan women receive secondary education, and their workforce participation is just 15.7 percent. We have a lot of work left to do.
Are you considering expanding Code to Inspire to other provinces?
We would like to expand our coding school to other cities including Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. We want to establish a strong network of women in technology. Every year we will enroll 50 new female students in our coding school to increase the number of women in tech, raise more awareness and decrease the gender gap.
What career advice would you give to young Afghan women?
It’s very important that you believe in yourself and have faith in the work you’re doing. It doesn’t matter where you are, what you have or don’t have, you should never be afraid to do what you believe in. And if you’re criticized, embrace the critics because they make you stronger.
What are some ways people can support Code to Inspire?
I would like to ask your readers to be our ambassadors. Share our work with other people and be part of a good story from Afghanistan.
We are also looking for partners who can help us with designing our curriculum, providing educational and technical consultations to our mentors in Afghanistan, raising awareness about our work, and making it possible for us to expand it.
To learn more about Code to Inspire or support Fereshteh’s valuable work, visit their website: codetoinspire.org
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