Toshiko Kitahara flung herself into fundraising in her native Japan following a period as a volunteer with WFP in Afghanistan. Her goal was to build a school with the help of WFP food for work, and get Afghan girls into education so they could improve their lives. Jackie Dent reports.
When Toshiko Kitahara first arrived in Faizabad, a town in northeastern Afghanistan, in March 2002, she was immediately struck by its beauty.
I believe the girls can gain a basic knowledge of life through education and that is especially important in a place with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world
“Everybody told me the town was going to be like something from medieval times and it was – it was and so peaceful.”
But the beauty of the place hid something for which Toshiko wasn't prepared: an area with tragic statistics on death related to childbirth.
In 2002, UNICEF published a survey that identified Ragh, a district of Badakhshan province, as suffering from the world’s worst maternal mortality rate.
In the US, 17 out of every 100,000 women die from childbirth; in Afghanistan the figure jumps to 1,900 – and in Badakshan, the figures are a shocking 6,000 per 100,000.
The high rate is not only attributed to the remoteness of this mountainous area, which cuts mothers off from medical help, but also to the frequency of obstructed births.
These often occur among girls who have babies too young and are caused - among other things - by unsatisfactory nutrition.
This in turn leads to growth stunting and poor literacy.
No schooling for girls
On taking a job as a UNV in WFP’s Afghanistan food-for-education unit, Toshiko discovered another unsettling fact: no girls in Ragh had ever gone to school.
It was only in 2003 that four hundred girls began studying. “I contacted agencies but no one had any plans to encourage education among girls.
"It was just too sad. The statistics showed a miserable situation and I felt an obligation to do something,” said Toshiko.
Fundraising in a burka
With the support from her friends, she began fundraising back in her native Japan and was determined to spread her message about the plight of Afghanistan to as many people as possible.
She spoke at church meetings and pubs, creating a striking impression and giving her audience something to think about by wearing a burka.
Besides a government donation of US$80,000, Toshiko also received large contributions from Japanese and American individuals.
Food for work
Back in Faizabad, she worked with the local department of education and NGOs to implement her plan.
WFP also pitched in by providing food-for-work to assist with construction.
More than 140 individuals and organisations have donated US$140,000 to the building of a school. With nearly 80 percent of the project finished, Toshiko still needs another US$40,000 to complete it.
Once finished, the school – named “Bibi Mariam” - will have 12 furnished classrooms, latrines and water wells catering for up to 700 primary age children in two shifts.
“I believe the girls can gain a basic knowledge of life through education and that is especially important in a place with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world,” said Toshiko.