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Half-pipe dreams: empowerment through skating in Afghanistan

August 04, 2015
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Afghanistan, #Cambodia, #children's rights, #skateboarding, #Skateistan, #South Africa, #UNICEF, #women's rights, #youth empowerment
located:Afghanistan, Cambodia, South Africa
by:Vanessa Ellingham
An NGO is using skateboarding to empower youth – particularly girls – in Afghanistan.

According to UNICEF, Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be born a woman. As international forces begin their withdrawal from the nation left ravaged after 30 years of conflict, violence against women is still rife, and girls’ access to education prevented in many regions.

In 2007 when Oliver Percovich found a sweet skating spot in Kabul – an empty, abandoned Soviet fountain – while visiting his girlfriend, little did he know of this issue, or the part him and his skating would come to play in fighting against it.

After experiencing the local children gathering around to watch him skate, a sport quite unknown in this part of the world, and that girls showed up to watch him as well, Percovich was motivated to turn this into something good. A trip to visit his girlfriend became a lifetime commitment to Afghanistan’s children.

Today the non-profit Skateistan has two skate schools in Afghanistan, and one each in Cambodia and South Africa. The goal is clear: empowerment through activity. “Youth come for skateboarding, and stay for education.” Combined they serve 800 students, 40 percent of whom are girls.

Skateistan offers three programs: the main one is weekly structured skateboarding instruction, combined with an arts-based curriculum. “In the classroom, students use fine arts and multimedia to explore geography, world cultures, history, human rights, environmental studies, hygiene, storytelling and more. Lessons focus on giving youth tools to express themselves, think critically and solve problems in their local and global communities.”

One special film class resulted in a 100% student-made homage to Prison Break, called Skateistan Break, a 10 minute film made with donated gear during an 8-week course.

Skateistan also offers a Back to School program, for kids who want to re-enrol in the public school system after being outside it for some time, as well as kids who are enrolling for the first time. It’s a kind of ‘catch up’ program, preparing students to sit state exams and then re-enter the public system at an appropriate grade level. Skateistan follows the kids into school to ensure they and their families are supported during the transition.

The third program is on youth leadership, which has seen some of the children take on leadership roles within Skateistan and among their peers. One example is 19-year-old Nelofar, a girl who gave an interview to Vice media on behalf of Skateistan. After 18 months in the program, she now does student administrative work for the organisation while she studies to become a doctor.

She told Vice about not having ever heard of skating before she saw Skateistan in action, after her aunt encouraged her to check it out.

The Skateistan leadership says this low-profile of skating has been a major advantage. While most other sports are socially taboo for Afghan girls, skating is considered more of a game than a sport, and this has made it easier for families to allow their daughters to participate.

Nelofar was proud to tell Vice that the males in her family support her participation. "They like my skateboarding," she says. "They encourage me. They know everybody has rights."

It is in this way that Skateistan provides the outside world with a more nuanced perception of life in Afghanistan – both that it is changing, and that there is a whole spectrum of beliefs. Despite the outside assumption that all Afghan women are held back by conservative views of a woman’s place in society, Skateistan presents hundreds of girls and young women who have had their families support them to join the program.

When asked what her hopes are for women in Afghanistan in 2015, Nelofar answers: "It's my dream that everyone can do sport, especially girls in the street, and nobody will disturb them. Hopefully things will change."

Header Image: Skateistan volunteer Erika ollies in front of the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were built in the 6th century but blown up by the Taliban in 2001. Copyright: Skateistan

Article written by:
Vanessa Ellingham
Afghanistan Cambodia South Africa
In 2007 when Oliver Percovich found a sweet skating spot in Kabul – an empty, abandoned Soviet fountain.
Today the non-profit Skateistan has two skate schools in Afghanistan, and one each in Cambodia and South Africa.
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