“I just can’t stop because a few men in a presidential palace changed and because they were raised some way, so all my political rights had to be stripped. All my educational rights had to be stripped. That’s not how it works.”
Pashtana Durrani, is the Co-Founder & Managing Director of LEARN, an Afghan non-governmental and non-profit organisation.
Pashtana co-founded LEARN in remote communities in Kandahar, Afghanistan to promote digital literacy for children and train adolescent girls in menstrual hygiene management & reproductive health. She also initiated the Digital Lab as an offline library of general and science subjects designed as a peer learning digital lab that offers contents for grades 1 through 12 in two national languages, Dari and Pashto. With support from the Malala Fund, Pashtana is expanding her work to eighteen public schools in Kandahar impacting over 7,000 learners. Pashtana has been working to persuade the government of Afghanistan to consider digital literacy as an alternative teaching and learning pathway in its Fourth National Education Strategic Plan.
Discover her story
Navigating between tradition and modernity, 23-year-old Pasthana Durrani is relentless when it comes to education access for women in Afghanistan. She founded her nonprofit, LEARN Afghanistan, to enable girls in areas that lack the infrastructure to continue learning. “We came up with a solution that worked for Afghanistan, an offline app for tablets, which doesn’t need a lot of electricity.” LEARN began with five digital tablets; today, 7,000 girls are using this innovative solution. Pashtana finds constant inspiration in the students’ drive, “You need to make sure that you take the leap so someday they take their lead.” She knows they will become responsible citizens and lead their communities to a better future.
When Pashtana was a child, her father opened a school at home because UNICEF would not build one near her refugee camp in Pakistan. Her mother and her aunt soon began teaching, too. “I was around three or four years old, and that’s where my work ethic comes from.” This improvised school was a success, and up to 70 girls studied English and Pashtun with Pashtana’s father. Students even came knocking at their door during summer or winter breaks asking if the school was open.
Pashtana is proud to have been motivated “by all these women leaders of Afghanistan that nobody talks about.” She mentions heroines like Malalai of Maiwand and Ayesha Durrani as relatable sources of inspiration. “Their names, their family, their lineage, everything was like mine.” One of her projects is even named after Queen Soraya, the first female education minister in Afghanistan.
Despite days when things do not go her way, Pashtana has learned one thing: not to quit. “I keep going,” says Pashtana, because she knows that every girl in school contributes to a more open and educated Afghanistan. Her determination has enabled her to create LEARN Afghanistan.
“LEARN focuses on all the aspects to make sure that if a girl is not going to school, she does; and if she does, make sure she stays.”
For example, after realizing girls were missing school because of their period—many rural schools don’t have access to sanitary pads, running water, or clean washrooms—
LEARN created a menstrual hygiene management program to ensure their attendance. Furthermore, LEARN is committed to sending doctors every two weeks to the villages if families keep their daughters in school. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Pashtana recalls how Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson helped her realize she is not the only one struggling to improve education access for girls. In the book, Mortenson—finding himself without a blackboard or chalk—teaches numbers to a girl by writing them in mud.
When LEARN opened their first school and went to see the principal; she was worried they didn’t have an English teacher. He then tells her that a seven-year-old—that has never attended an English lesson—has learned the Lion King story by heart, in English, by using the tablet. “And that’s when I understood that that was my mud moment,” says Pashtana.
“I want to focus on refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh,Turkey and Pakistan, and on communities that welcome digital learning or are in dire need,” says Pashtana when asked about her future plans. She believes digital learning, the use of tablets, is more efficient than slow, costly infrastructure projects.
Whether it’s a tribal leader, a young female student, or an international agency, Pashtana strives for a kind of leadership where “it’s not just me telling them stuff—it’s me listening to them.”
Learn more about her work at https://www.learnafghan.org