Educating Girls in Afghanistan: Q&A with Demelza Hills

While it is easy for many of us who have grown up in the United Kingdom or United States to take education for granted, an overwhelming number of children in Afghanistan, with the majority being girls, are not enrolled in school. The country has been ridden with war and conflict for decades and its view to improving human rights has been bleak. Notwithstanding this climate, demand for education has increased in recent years. (Check out the Global Partnership for Education’s analysis here.)  Around the world, there has been a call to increase educational opportunities in Afghanistan, and we are inspired by the organizations that are championing this cause.

Since 2014, Debevoise’s London office has advised one such organization: Friends of SOLA (UK). Friends of SOLA (UK) is a charity dedicated to helping girls in Afghanistan access quality education, in particular by supporting the work of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (“SOLA”). SOLA is a non-profit organization committed to furthering educational and leadership opportunities in Afghanistan – particularly for women – with a long-term goal of becoming an internationally-accredited boarding school in Kabul for Afghan students, with Afghan and international faculty.

I reached out to Demelza Hills, the Chair of Friends of SOLA (UK), to discuss the charity, her role, and the organization’s recent successes. Demelza has been a teacher for over 10 years and is passionate about education, in particular for girls in Afghanistan. This interview has been condensed from its original form.

Q: How did you become involved with Friends of SOLA (UK)?

It was really serendipity. A school friend who was tutoring in the SOLA school in Kabul reached out to me asking whether there was anything I could do to help one of her promising female students. I discussed it with the head teacher of my school, expecting at most an offer of a brief exchange program. Instead, he said that the school would give the student a full boarding scholarship for her to complete her A-Levels (exams taken by UK students at the end of their Senior year to prepare them for university) – I couldn’t believe it!  During the student’s time at the school in England, I had daily contact with her, and she really became part of my family. Once I met Shabana Basij-Rasikh and Ted Achilles, the founders of SOLA, I decided that I wanted to support the organization and its mission and so I initiated Friends of SOLA (UK) to channel our UK fundraising efforts.

Q: What challenges have you faced starting Friends of SOLA (UK)?

Friends of SOLA (UK) has been a registered charity for nearly a year and we’ve raised significant awareness – the charity sector is a crowded market, so we are fortunate to have developed a network of people who support us. Significant legal issues can crop up, particularly when, for example, sending money to Afghanistan. Debevoise has been really helpful from the beginning in making us feel that we were setting up this meaningful charity, correctly and safely, ensuring that we do all transfers in accordance with the law, and providing a sound legal back-up when we need it.

Q: What do you do at Friends of SOLA (UK)?

I wear different hats. I have frequent contact with the pupils’ families in Afghanistan, who we have found to be very supportive of their daughters’ education. I help the UK-based pupils with any daily needs that they may have, including ensuring that we have fundraised enough to see them through their UK education. I also participate in regular meetings with the boards of Friends of SOLA (UK) and of SOLA itself (which has branches in the U.S. and Afghanistan).

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of so far?

We now have two UK private schools that will be offering full scholarships from September and we’ve been approached by a couple of additional UK schools that may offer similar programs in the future.  It’s great that we have the ringing endorsement of excellent UK private schools that recognize the great learning opportunity of the exchange. We have also had a very smooth and successful transition of the current SOLA student who is supported by Friends of SOLA (UK) from Kabul to the UK. I mentored her before her arrival, planned her arrival and helped her settle in. So far she is progressing extremely well in her GCSEs (exams taken by UK students at the end of their Sophomore year). We look forward to building on our experience when future SOLA pupils take up places in UK schools.

Ellie Mends is an associate in Debevoise’s London office.

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