School empowers women in Afghanistan by teaching them how to code

Students become advocates for change through education and technology

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Fereshteh For­ough reminds you about all the won­der­ful things tech­nol­o­gy can make hap­pen. This is a sto­ry about a cod­ing boot camp doing things and enabling human beings in a way that would have been impos­si­ble just a few years ago.

Women in Afghanistan have bleak prospects for all the rea­sons you might imag­ine, though the odds they face prob­a­bly are worse than you imag­ine. About sev­en out of eight women have no for­mal edu­ca­tion and are illit­er­ate. Only about one out of eight par­tic­i­pate in the labor force.

Relat­ed: Deal­ing with the gen­der gap in cybersecurity

The very notion of teach­ing girls, let alone help­ing them get a job, is con­tro­ver­sial. It’s hard to trav­el safe­ly to work. It’s near­ly impos­si­ble to take a job in a city away from family—women don’t move in with room­mates. It’s even hard to accept pay­ment with­out access to tra­di­tion­al bank accounts.

Inter­net eas­es restrictions

The inter­net solves many of these prob­lems neat­ly. In fact, you might imag­ine it was invent­ed for this very sit­u­a­tion. It was just wait­ing for Fereshteh For­ough to make the con­nec­tion. After all, women there are much more like­ly to have inter­net access, or even a mobile phone, than access to a bank account. (See CodetoInspire.org for sourc­ing on these data points.)

About a year ago, For­ough opened Code to Inspire, a women-only school in Her­at, Afghanistan, that teach­es com­put­er pro­gram­ming to stu­dents 15 to 25 years old. The women can work safe­ly and anony­mous­ly at home—hiding their gen­der, if they have to. They can work for inter­na­tion­al firms, get­ting high­er than local pay rates. And they can get paid online, poten­tial­ly via a vir­tu­al cur­ren­cy like Bitcoin.

I met For­ough at a Bit­coin event last year, which led to me attend­ing Code to Inspire’s first grad­u­a­tion cel­e­bra­tion ear­li­er this month, and it was a treat. An inspir­ing treat.

Fereshteh Forough, Code to Inspire founder
Fereshteh For­ough, Code to Inspire founder

For­ough is from Her­at, the third-largest city in Afghanistan. It’s in the west, near the Iran bor­der, and while it is rel­a­tive­ly safe, there are still plen­ty of secu­ri­ty con­cerns. A fatal attack on West­ern tourists this sum­mer was a reminder that over­land trips to Her­at are still perilous.

Her­at is far less dan­ger­ous now than when For­ough was a lit­tle girl and her fam­i­ly fled to a refugee camp in Iran. When she returned to Her­at after the fall of the Tal­iban, she faced sus­pi­cion over the Iran­ian accent she had devel­oped. Still, she blazed a trail by earn­ing a com­put­er sci­ence degree from Her­at Uni­ver­si­ty and, lat­er, a master’s degree in Germany.

Women tra­di­tion­al­ly point­ed toward ‘safer’ careers

She returned home again to teach and found a moun­tain of issues fac­ing young Afghan women who wished to break into the tech world. Even those who made their way into her class­es were extreme­ly reluc­tant to talk.

Women in Afghanistan are fac­ing a lot of chal­lenges. Safe­ty and secu­ri­ty is one of them,” For­ough told me. “So a major­i­ty of fam­i­lies pre­fer their daugh­ter become a teacher … because you only deal with women.”

For­ough decid­ed she want­ed to inter­vene even ear­li­er in women’s lives, so she cre­at­ed the non­prof­it Code to Inspire. The school teach­es girls as young as 15 sim­ple skills like set­ting up social media, using Word­Press or design­ing web pages, help­ing them gain con­fi­dence. More expe­ri­enced stu­dents learn every­thing from JavaScript to mobile video game design.

The small class­room in Her­at is filled with lap­tops thanks in part to an online fund­ing campaign.

It opened last year and, so far, has trained 40 young women. The school is free, but it has a com­pet­i­tive appli­ca­tion process.

What we try to do is pro­vide a very safe and secure edu­ca­tion­al envi­ron­ment. … The girls, they come, feel secure, and they get an edu­ca­tion,” she said. “The main pur­pose is we try to find jobs for them online. So they get paid online, and they work online with­out the fear of any secu­ri­ty and fam­i­ly concerns.”

Obsta­cles to get­ting paid

Chal­lenges abound. Not every­one is hap­py For­ough is teach­ing young women to sup­port them­selves. The elec­tric­i­ty goes out occa­sion­al­ly, and the school must run on gen­er­a­tor pow­er. It’s still pre­ma­ture to pay stu­dents in Bit­coin, as mer­chants in Her­at don’t accept it, and it’s near­ly impos­si­ble for the women to receive pack­ages ordered online.

For the start, we are going to receive their pay­ments in our bank account in New York City and then trans­fer to our … account to Afghanistan and pay them in per­son,” For­ough said. “There are many chal­lenges for Bit­coin … there is no exchange in Afghanistan, and also they can’t pur­chase tan­gi­ble mate­ri­als as ship­ping address­es are not work­ing in Afghanistan properly.”

Still, For­ough and crew are work­ing on edu­cat­ing class No. 2, which they hope will exceed 100 stu­dents. Pro­ceeds from the grad­u­a­tion cel­e­bra­tion, which cost $50 to attend, will pay for three full months of school oper­a­tions, said Ben­jamin Dubow, Code to Inspire sec­re­tary. (Dubow works at Google.)

Effort gains some momentum

The effort is small, but grow­ing and rec­og­nized by the Afghani gov­ern­ment. Afghan ambas­sador to the U.S. Ham­dul­lah Mohib attend­ed the event.

I asked For­ough what she want­ed Amer­i­cans to know about her stu­dents. Here is what she said, in her own words.

I would like not only Amer­i­cans but the whole world to know that the spir­it of women in Afghanistan is they are fac­ing a lot of chal­lenges but … every morn­ing when they wake up they are stronger to chase their dreams,” For­ough said. “They face dis­crim­i­na­tion in access to edu­ca­tion. There are a lot of girls being pre­vent­ed from going to school. There are a lot of secu­ri­ty rea­sons, bomb­ings, in Afghan that are hap­pen­ing. But you know all these girls when they wake up in the morn­ing they real­ly want to go after their dream. They real­ly want to give back to the com­mu­ni­ty. So I want to say that there are a lot of good sto­ries about Afghanistan that have nev­er been heard.”

To learn more about Code to Inspire, vis­it the non­prof­it organization’s web­site. If you’re inter­est­ed in hir­ing one of the stu­dents for a free­lance project, send an email to info@codetoinspire.org.

More sto­ries about women in cybersecurity:
Help want­ed: More women in cyber­se­cu­ri­ty jobs
Unfilled jobs are the biggest threat to cybersecurity
Schol­ar­ships aimed at clos­ing cyber­se­cu­ri­ty tal­ent gap


Posted in Cybersecurity, Featured Story