The week of August 23, 2015

The heroic effort to bring the Internet to young women in Afghanistan

By Selena Larson

In a darkened room on a Saturday morning, a large group of students and teachers in Afghanistan lined up to talk to me over Skype. Each one’s eager to tell their personal story, describing ways computers have changed their lives.

The young women speak almost-fluent English, and any questions that risk being lost in the language barrier are handled by a translator. Some girls tell me they will become accountants; another, a poet; at least one young woman says she wants to be a computer programmer. One common thread throughout the conversation relates to their personal, not educational, journeys—a path that traces back to the Digital Citizen Fund, a nonprofit organization founded by Roya Mahboob, one of the country’s first female IT CEOs and founder of software development firm Afghan Citadel.

The Digital Citizen Fund provides Internet and technology training classes for young women in high school classrooms. So far, the group has built 11 Internet training facilities across Afghanistan. Students learn how to use social media, blogging, photography, and software, including design programs and Microsoft Office. Some students even learn basic coding skills to build simple applications.

High schools in Afghanistan usually don’t have computer labs, tablets, or other electronic resources you might find in U.S. classrooms. In fact, there’s a place in Afghanistan where villagers call a computer “Satan’s Box,” and when Mahboob originally tried to set up a classroom in rural Afghanistan to teach young women about technology, the students weren’t allowed access to the Internet. 

Taliban rule has violently prevented young girls from attending classes in the past, and in 2002, there were fewer than 200,000 girls enrolled in schools. In 2013, that number had risen to 2.7 million. While girls’ education continues to improve, male students still significantly outnumber female students.

In neighboring Pakistan in 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school every day and for being an outspoken advocate of education and human rights. She’s now a household name for both her remarkable recovery and her continued support of women’s education around the world; last year, she became the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

“It gives them freedom to think and freedom to talk about what is in their mind and their heart.”

That same year, 10 IT training centers were constructed to support Digital Citizen Fund, then known as the Women’s Annex Foundation.

“If they can assault one Malala, what about 10 Malala, what about 100, what about thousands or hundreds of thousands of Malala?” Mahboob said in an interview, outlining her inspiration for the Digital Citizen Fund. “The Taliban or terrorists cannot stop it. … We believe if we create thousands or hundreds of thousands of Malala, it would be very difficult for people to change it.”

As one of Time’s 100 most influential people of the year in 2013, Mahboob understands firsthand the threats educated women can receive. She said her rising popularity in her home country contributed to threats of violence, personal attacks, and efforts to block the new IT centers being built by her organization.

In the last three years, the Digital Citizen Fund has built three more IT centers and the Herat Media Center located in the heart of the city, where the Skype session is being held, and one other media center. In the process, it’s worked with more than 55,000 young women. Most of the classes are taught in Afghanistan, but the organization also recently launched classes in Mexico and has plans to expand even further.

Programs provided by the Digital Citizen Fund bridge the gap between traditional education and technical skills: Students from different schools and backgrounds can participate in the technology training programs. Security at the schools is tight, and Mahboob says that all the courses are at the most secure institutions, so girls can learn safely.


Students are also able to make money and secure some financial independence for themselves and their families. Girls can contribute to the social media site Bitlanders and get paid in the digital cryptocurrency Bitcoin for their freelance work. Bitcoin, Mahboob said, has given the young women the ability to make money without having to have their own bank accounts, an obstacle for financial stability in many developing countries.

“Education in social media is very important for women, because it gives them freedom to think and freedom to talk about what is in their mind and their heart,” Mahboob said. “It’s valuable for communication.”

“The Taliban or terrorists cannot stop it.”

The organization’s most recent project, called Superheroes, illustrates the focus on empowerment and education. In Afghanistan, superheroes like the ones people grew up with in the U.S. do not exist, so teachers asked students to create their own versions of superheroes. In the eyes of the students, Afghan superheroes aren’t necessarily strong or powerful. To them, superheroes bring peace, are kind to strangers, and help their neighbors when needed.

The students first sketched their ideas and will soon learn how to turn them into digital art. The organization wants to create comic books with the students’ designs and, funds permitting, buy 3D printers to print the girls’ creations.

While the art is beautiful, it’s the young students behind it who are so inspiring. Almost all the girls tell me their fathers needed the most convincing concerning their educations. Nadia, a middle school student in Herat, began taking the class without her father’s permission. It took him witnessing how her education is improving her life before he would give her his blessing.

“My mother supports me very much; she says I should go to the course because it’s very good for my future,” she says. “But my father said I should be at home and do chores and said it wasn’t good for girls.

“Last week, my father had a problem with his computer, then I went to solve his problem for him, and described that it was the course that allowed me to fix it. And now he thinks it’s a very good thing, and I should go.”

Nadia wants to become a cashier at an international bank, a career that would require at least some technical training. She says her favorite part of the Digital Citizen Fund is Bitlanders, where she can write and engage with other students around the world while earning Bitcoin to support herself and her family.

While the art is beautiful, it’s the young students behind it who are so inspiring.

Mena, who just graduated 12th grade with a newly discovered passion for photography, uses social media to connect with her cousins in London and other friends outside of Afghanistan. Her father, too, was skeptical of her using technology and thought it might corrupt her values.

“First he told me it’s not good, don’t learn it, it will make your future dark and it will make lots of bad things for you,” she says. “But now he thinks it’s really good. He is supporting me more than everyone in my family.” Mena says she wants to photograph “special photos” that highlight people’s emotions both in her community and abroad.

Photography is frequently mentioned as one of the girls’ favorite courses. Aziza, the photography teacher, encourages students to share their feelings and capture images no one else has the opportunity to see.


“By educating women in our society, they can solve their problems, their family problems, their economic problems,” Aziza says. “I understand how to take a photo, to edit, to take a video, and now I have this job and income for me and my family.”

Although education for women is improving, it’s still very difficult for women to find work. In Afghanistan, women account for just 16 percent of the labor force—less than neighboring Iran, and considerably less than Bangladesh, where women make up 40 percent of the workforce. But the hope is as education opportunities improve, so too will the potential for future careers.

Later, as each girl tells me about using Twitter for the first time, or taking the perfect photo, or using Bitcoin to achieve financial independence, Laleh Farzan, the manager of the Digital Citizen Fund in Herat, is visibly proud. Their smiles light up the dark room in Afghanistan, and the confidence they’d cultivated from going to class is palpable through the screen.

“There are many problems about women and you hear about it, but these are girls that are very brave,” Farzan says. “Students that are studying in our courses, these are girls that can go outside and continue these courses. That’s why they are here.”


A version of this story was originally published by the Daily Dot on March 13, 2015.

Main photo via Todd Huffman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | All other photos via the Digital Citizen Fund