In a huge sports hall next to the National Olympic Stadium in Kabul, dozens of little girls in brightly patterned shalwar kameez and hijabs are tugging on trainers and strapping on pink plastic knee pads. With their helmets properly secured, they select a skateboard each and scramble towards the ramps, beaming.
This is Afghanistan’s first skateboarding school. Now in its fifth year of operation, every week sees hundreds of local children take part in activities within its walls, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, family income, religion or ability.
The charity behind the construction of the 1750m indoor park is Skateistan, an NGO founded by Australian skate enthusiast Oliver Percovich in 2007. Starting in an empty fountain with just three boards, the project rapidly expanded to cope with the sport’s popularity among the children. It now boasts an additional skatepark in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, as well as sister facilities in Cambodia and South Africa. Since 2007, the charity has worked with over 2500 young people across the globe, of which 40% have been girls.
In Afghanistan, one in ten children will die before their fifth birthday. Approximately eighty thousand young people in Kabul are street workers, and the UN estimates that more than 46% of Afghan girls are made to get married before the age of eighteen. In the world’s most dangerous country to be a woman, the importance of playtime can’t be overestimated. But whereas activities like cycling are off-limits to the vast majority of Afghan women due to the burden of cultural expectations, skateboarding is not.
For the hundreds of girls that have passed through Skateistan’s doors, learning to ride is a taste of freedom from work and a chance to make new friends in the community. But crucially, it is also an opportunity to learn. Skateboarding is only the start of the development programmes the charity offers. Before the children get their turn on the ramps, they have to hit the books, with every skate session preceded by classroom time. The curriculum is arts-based, and uses photography, film-making and illustration to cover topics like leadership, citizenship and the environment. The hope is that by bringing children from different social backgrounds together, the pupils will gain greater cultural awareness and form friendships across community groups.
Every day, forty children also attend the Back to School scheme run by Skateistan in Kabul. This intensive programme targets street-working children, refugees and vulnerable girls in the city who are outside of the Afghan education system. Less than half of the population in Afghanistan are literate, with young women particularly affected: only 18% of those aged 15–24 are able to read and write. After a year of Skateistan teaching, the aim is to enrol the attendees back into their local schools – a goal that has been achieved for over one hundred children to date.
In addition to educational opportunities, talented skaters have the chance to go on to become peer instructors and skatepark staff. Fifty-five already have. The Kabul branch has been entirely run by local people since the end of 2013. In time, Skateistan hopes to replicate the sustainable management in Kabul at its other facilities around the world. The youth focus of the charity is reflected in its personnel: nearly 70% of the staff are former students, and a staggering 60% are under the age of twenty-five. But the participants’ career ambitions go beyond skatepark management. Thirteen-year-old skate instructor Tamana has her sights set high: “First I want to get an education, achieve my life goals, become a doctor and serve my people. Then I will get married.”
Of course, the money to fund continental expansion has to come from somewhere. Sixty per cent of Skateistan’s income is sourced from government funding, with notable support coming from Norway, Denmark and Germany. The vast majority of their resources go back into their programmes (85%), followed by 11% spent on administration and 4% on further fundraising. This is a social media-savvy charity, and its ‘Keep Skateistan Rolling’ campaign has garnered global support. The fundraising events its volunteers organise in over a dozen countries are a crucial part of Skateistan’s journey towards self-sufficiency, as well as sales of the organisation’s clothing line and book.
What started as a grassroots initiative in 2007 has now caught the attention of some of the world’s leading development organisations. In 2013, Skateistan won the UNICEF Sport for Education award. In the same year, they were awarded position 85 on the Global Journal’s Top 100 NGOs. And in April, sixteen-year-old student Madina Saidy represented the charity as the youngest speaker at the UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum.
“Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world,” said Susan B. Anthony in 1896. In 2014, the Skateistan team might argue that four wheels are better than two.