Shabana Basij-Rasikh thinks she knows the secret to healing ethnic tensions that arose from more than 30 years of war in Afghanistan, improving the struggling economy, and fixing the devastated infrastructure: girls.
Having co-founded her home country's first boarding school for girls in 2008, Basij-Rasikh believes that women are the nation's most valuable untapped natural resource. Her nonprofit School of Leadership, Afghanistan in Kabul offers college prep courses and helps graduates get into universities around the world.
The hope is that they come back to pursue careers in Afghanistan.
"These young women are the generation that can bring peace and prosperity back to our country," says Basij-Rasikh, 24, who was educated in secret during the repressive Taliban regime. (Read a Q&A with Basij-Rasikh.)
From 1996 until 2001, when the Taliban was toppled by U.S.-led forces, Afghanistan's women were barred from participating in politics and business. The fundamentalist Islamic regime also made it illegal for girls to go to school.
By 2007, only 6 percent of Afghan women 25 years or older had received any formal education. Even today, the illiteracy rate for rural women hovers around 90 percent. (Related: "New Afghan Law Disastrous for Women, Says National Geographic Photographer.")
To chip away at that number, the School of Leadership has helped students from across Afghanistan access more than ten million dollars in scholarships. The school has 35 students, ages 12 to 18, and is working to boost enrollment to 340 in the next five years.
"The most effective antidote to the Taliban is to create the best educated leadership generation in Afghanistan's history," says Basij-Rasikh. "Our girls today—the women of tomorrow—will make it happen."
Key to meeting that goal, she says, is involving women from around the world. Each student at School of Leadership, Afghanistan—or SOLA, which means "peace" in the Pashtun language—is matched with a volunteer mentor from abroad to Skype with twice a week. Mentors and students discuss current events and books and talk through communications challenges, college applications, and personal problems.
"After growing up in a society that doesn't value academics or careers for girls," Basij-Rasikh says, "imagine how it feels to have an advocate on the other side of the world who goes online just for you, wants you to succeed, and thinks your education is of the greatest importance." (Read about the life of the iconic "Afghan girl" who appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine.)
Academics are only part of the program. The Kabul school offers extracurricular activities that continue to ruffle feathers in conservative Afghan society.
"Often, Afghan girls are told to be ashamed of their bodies," says Basij-Rasikh. "We tell them to exercise, climb rocks, and skateboard. This physical activity builds self-esteem and inner strength they'll need when they become the first women to enter many fields.
"We've even offered driving lessons," she adds, "which is extraordinary in a country where you can count the number of female drivers on your hands."
Basij-Rasikh could have easily been among Afghan's vast uneducated.
But maverick members of her family had for generations insisted on the importance of education, even for girls. During Taliban years, her parents risked the lives of the entire family to send Basij-Rasikh and her sister to a secret school for girls.
Dressed as a boy, Basij-Rasikh slipped through the streets of Kabul, taking a different route each day to a home where a hundred young girls packed into the living room to learn.
Years later, she attended high school in the U.S. through an exchange program, and earned a degree in international studies and women and gender studies from Middlebury College in Vermont in 2011.
When she returned to Afghanistan, Basij-Rasikh vowed not just to improve education for women but also to help the country rethink how it educates everyone.
For instance, at virtually all Afghan schools, student bodies reflect the insular, homogeneous ethnicity of their local area. "Students never have a chance to interact with people from other backgrounds," says Basij-Rasikh, "and that escalates our nation's severe ethnic tensions."
That's why the School of Leadership is a boarding school, with students coming from 14 provinces, representing five different ethnic backgrounds, and including both Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Girls, parents, and teachers sign an honor code pledging to respect, accept, and appreciate each other's differences.
"SOLA not only educates children," says Basij-Rasikh, "it's also a powerful opportunity to address social problems, promote unity, and nurture change makers."
Of course, the education part also matters—a lot.
"Afghanistan's current educational curriculum is 40 years old, and the entire system is based on rote learning and memorization," Basij-Rasikh says. "SOLA's focus is on critical thinking, creativity, and innovation. How else will they be equipped to solve our nation's complex problems?"
Instituting that kind of new thinking isn't easy. "The concept of a girl living away from home to be educated isn't culturally accepted," Basij-Rasikh says. "Families receive threats, and some even risk their lives to send daughters here."
Still, she marvels at the single mothers who "work so hard and sacrifice so much to give their girls the chance they were denied."
Now, many of the students want to give others new opportunities. Basij-Rasikh says that one student sets her sights on earning enough money as a businesswoman to build a hospital in the Afghan district with the world's highest maternal mortality rate.
But that depends on SOLA graduates' returning to Afghanistan after they study abroad at elite institutions like Tufts University, Smith College, and Yale.
"We don't ignore the disparity these girls face when they go to countries where safety is not a problem, where electricity doesn't disappear, where they have showers not buckets, and grocery stores are filled with an abundance of options," Basij-Rasikh says.
"Our hope is that by creating a high-quality boarding school that lets them spend formative years in their own country, they'll have more reasons and desire to return."
Ultimately, Basij-Rasikh hopes her school will acquire a larger campus in Kabul, that its model will be replicated throughout Afghanistan, and even that critical-thinking-based learning will become part of mainstream public schools.
But all that is probably a long way off. The first priority is getting recent graduates to come back from abroad. "My father tells me my efforts are like planting a date tree," she says. "It takes 50 years to bear its first fruit. I am determined to make it happen."