Compared to zero in 2001, the number of female students in Afghanistan has soared, in large part due to efforts by civil society actors, government officials and international donors. These numbers begin to falter when examining higher education numbers and especially the labor force. Fereshteh Forough, founder and president of Code To Inspire, is trying to turn the tide. Born in Iran to Afghan refugee parents, she returned to live in Herat after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Her own educational career took her from completing a bachelor’s degree in computer science at the University of Herat to attaining a master’s degree from the Technical University of Berlin in Germany. She then returned to Afghanistan and taught as a professor in the Computer Science Faculty of Herat University for three years.
In 2015, Fereshteh merged her twin passions - computer science education and empowering young women - to create Code To Inspire, the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan. We had the opportunity to interview Fereshteh, who currently resides in NYC, to discuss her motivations for establishing Code To Inspire, and her vision for a new, revitalized Afghanistan.
Q: What motivated you to start Code To Inspire? Why do you think the time was right in Afghanistan?
A: During my life journey in education, there were many ups and downs which led me to think about how to improve the status quo of education for women in Afghanistan and specifically in technology. Most of the time, when a female student graduated from Computer Science, she couldn’t find a job in the field she studied. Unfortunately, there are many factors as to why. As a female graduate in Computer Science, if you get a job offer outside of your hometown, the majority of families won’t let you leave the city. Safety and security is one reason. There is a lack of safe and secure learning environments. That’s why I established Code to Inspire as a social good enterprise in January 2015. Later that year, in November, we opened the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan with the aim to educate Afghan women with in-demand programming skills, empower them to add unique value to their communities, and inspire them to strive for financial and social independence.
Q: A lot has changed in Afghanistan over the last 15 years. We know that there are some big obstacles for women’s education, but what are the biggest improvements you have seen over the past 5-10 years? What obstacles still need to be overcome?
A: Decades of war, civil unrest, internal conflicts and political instability in Afghanistan have destroyed the basic social services that citizens typically expect from their country. Education, in particular, became vulnerable to disruption and violence. Schools and students suffered tremendously as a result.
In 2002, the newly established Government of Afghanistan inherited a disabled and defunct education system. Fewer than one million students in the ENTIRE country of over 23 million people were enrolled in school with almost no female participation. However, after the fall of the Taliban, many improvements have been made and are still happening. Nearly 7 million children are enrolled in schools, around 37% or 2.5 million of them are girls.
Furthermore, there is a 30% increase in female Afghan teachers. As of 2014, 90% of residential areas have access to telecommunication. To date, there are 23.21 million mobile phone users in the country and about 3 million people or 10% of the population in the country have access to the Internet. Women’s participation in the labour force has been rising steadily since 200, reaching 19% in 2016, and 27.7% of the seats in parliament are held by women. For reference, in the US Senate, women only occupy 20% of the seats.
Q: How many students did Code To Inspire start with? How has it grown?
A: Code to Inspire opened the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan in November 2015. We facilitated a general Computer and English entrance exam and received about 120 applications. The top 50 girls from different educational backgrounds ( high school and computer science) were selected to join our coding school. On March 2017 we offered a new Graphic and Design class to another group of students coming from an arts background. After two years of operation in Herat, Afghanistan, we have just recently accepted another group of 80 female students to our Mobile Application, Unity and Full Stack development class!
Q: Code To Inspire has achieved so much in just two short years. What have been some of the biggest challenges along the way? What do you find has been its biggest success?
A: 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 girls in Afghanistan are learning and growing everyday.
Q: Building an organization from the ground up can be quite challenging. What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned during this process?
A: Before establishing Code to Inspire, during the summer of 2014, I left the job I had to seek a new dream! While I lived off of my savings in the Big Apple, I felt very nervous, sad, lost in the world and any sort of negative energy you can think of was spinning around my head.
I had no official job and thought to use the opportunity of using my native language to earn income. I ended up finding a language school and began teaching Farsi. I took as many as classes I could because I needed the money to survive, but that wasn’t my main passion. In my inner heart, I always wanted to do something for women in my hometown of Herat, a city I missed so badly.
When first the idea of CTI came to my mind. I talked to as many people as you can imagine, it was just an IDEA right?! Why would someone trust that this idea would become a reality?! Many people I spoke to were afraid to invest in CTI or even give their time to help.
I tried to use social media like Linkedin to reach out to professionals that I needed their expertise to make my dream come true. By growing my personal network and constantly reaching out to people, I got to the point where I was able to register Code to Inspire as a legal entity in the United States.
Q: What is your ultimate vision for Code To Inspire? What do you hope students to achieve after they have graduated?
A: Our vision is to decrease gender inequality and poverty among families with women. Assisting girls to become entrepreneurs, not only to make income for themselves and be financially independent, but to create jobs for other women. We want to create a strong network of women in tech that are change makers and help the country’s economy.
Q: What have been some of the highlights working with Afghan girls in tech?
A: We believe in giving back to the community. Our students are making mobile apps and games that address real local issues. Their graphic and design work, for example, relays a peaceful message to the community
- Tourism App: A group of our mobile application development students are creating an app to promote tourism in Afghanistan. They want to show Afghanistan’s lesser known side to the world with all its beautiful nature and attractions. They’re working hard to demonstrate that Afghanistan is not just war and destruction, and there are many historical sites and beautiful places to visit.
- Fight against Opium Game: Inspired by Afghanistan’s national army, our students developed a game in which players fight the Taliban and eradicate opium production. Instead, the fields are used to grow saffron. The beta version of the game will be released soon!
Q: In an interview, you mentioned you wanted to help “build Afghanistan 2.0 by teaching girls how to code”. As a young person, what do you see as the trajectory of the “new” Afghanistan?
A: This is the new Afghanistan I am hoping to build with our girls at Code to Inspire. An Afghanistan where there is:
- Equality: Where women use technology education to support themselves and fight for their social, political and economic equality.
- Empowerment: Women are able to build skills that can help them compete in the global tech market, empowering themselves financially and socially.
- Change: They become a role model for other young women and demonstrate that women are capable of adding value to their communities far beyond simple housework.
Q: What’s next for Code To Inspire?
A: We are expanding our coding school and to make that happen we just launched an online crowdfunding campaign to raise 40K where we can educate another group of 80 girls in Herat, Afghanistan to learn how to code.
We are also at the final stage of releasing some games and mobile applications that are addressing local problems.
Q: And finally, how did you yourself get into computer science and coding?
A: My major at high school was literature. When we moved to Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban in 2002, I took the General University exam, and I received my university results before Spring. I was accepted in the Computer Science faculty, however I didn’t have any background in STEM. From the start, I had difficulties especially with Math, but eventually I became increasingly interested in Computer Science.
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.
For more information or to learn how you can help Code To Inspire, head to http://codetoinspire.org/