Marilyn Mosely Gordanier’s life changed the day she sat down in front of a film about girls in the developing world who struggle to access education. The film, “Girl Rising,” was all the more significant for Mosely Gordanier because the Afghan segment was directed by her daughter, Ramaa Mosely. As she watched, Mosely Gordanier found herself deeply affected by the stories of girls who want nothing more than to go to school, but can’t because their parents don’t have the money to send them.
The founder of the Laurel Springs School, one of the early online schools, Mosely Gordanier has been advocating the importance of education for more than 35 years. In order to make a difference for girls in Afghanistan, she knew she would need the help of people who understood how to navigate the country’s political, cultural and religious landscape. Four years ago, she partnered up with Ramma and Afghan native and BBC journalist Zarguna Kargar to form Food4School. The idea is to provide impoverished families in Afghanistan with a monthly stipend to purchase food, which then frees up enough money for parents to send their daughters to school.
Women & Girls spoke with Mosely Gordanier, who’s based in California, about the power of giving women control over family finances and how access to education can prevent child marriage.
Women & Girls: There are lot of people in need in Afghanistan. How do you decide which families you will help?
Marilyn Mosely Gordanier: Our team on the ground has been incredibly helpful in finding the families. Because they [the team members] work for the BBC, it started off that the families were people they had interviewed, and through them we were connected to other families. We are currently helping 15 to 20 families per year, and we continue to help them until their children have graduated from school. Most are in Kabul, and we also have four families [living in] Taliban-controlled areas.
The criteria we use is that these families have to be living below the poverty line and they either do not have a way to make money or they aren’t making enough money to feed their children or send them to school. Most of the families, when they come to us, are barely surviving.
Women & Girls: The Taliban prohibits girls from getting an education. How do you get around this for your families living in Taliban-controlled areas?
Mosely Gordanier: We can’t give too much information [because of safety concerns], but there are underground schools in those areas and they are participating, along with other local girls.
These families [in Taliban-controlled areas] are in extremely challenging situations. We can’t even post photos of the girls on our website. We had one case where two girls from a family living in a Taliban-controlled area heard about our program, because there was a small article done on us in a local paper. The girls traveled to Kabul, and they begged us to help them. Both of their parents are deaf and they desperately wanted an education, so of course we helped them because this was a family in great need and they were so brave to take the chance to come to Kabul and to continue their education.
Women & Girls: What type of aid does Food4School provide?
Mosely Gordanier: We provide families with between $60 and $120 per month, depending on the number of children, if the mother is widowed and what extenuating circumstances the family has. For example, we have a family that consists of just two orphans, and the older daughter is in school and also taking care of her little sister [so this family receives $120 per month].
Out of all the families we have this year, there is only one father who is working, so that is a huge challenge. Unfortunately, most of the fathers we work with are addicted to opium and that makes them less than capable of working. Therefore, we never give [the fathers] money directly. When the money is delivered, it is given only to the women, and what I love is that it has been very empowering to them. We have been told by the women that the program has increased their self-esteem, they feel like a new person.
Normally when we give the women the funds they are able to go out and food shop for themselves, but we have one woman who was a widow and her family was very strict so she wore the burqa and could not go out [of the house]. So we brought her food every month and then after about three months she told us that she thought she was ready to go to the market by herself. After that, she stopped wearing the burqa and started going to other places alone, such as the bank.
We have discovered that when you give women power through funding, it makes a big difference.
Women & Girls: How sustainable is the Food4School program?
Mosely Gordanier: That is one of our biggest concerns. We have been encouraging the mothers of the families to get an education and start small businesses. These women are ingenious, and they are starting small companies and we are working to help and encourage them. These are very simple products, like fruit markets and weaving. So we are looking for different ways to make this sustainable and to figure out how we can continue to help these families as their children grow up.
Women & Girls: You started Food4School to decrease child marriage. Do you think the program can be translated to other parts of the world where child marriage is practiced?
Mosely Gordanier: This was our prototype program. We stepped into a place that was one of the harder areas to gain entrance and we felt that if we made progress here it would be easier to expand in areas where we have strong contacts, such as parts of Africa. I think it is a very simple process that makes it clear that if you feed a family and if they know that their child will be educated, they will want that to continue.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.