Hockey Girls: Gender Equality in Afghanistan and Beyond

Petite, courageous and focussed, Zarmina Nekzai has made it her life's work to advance gender equality in Afghanistan and internationally by promoting education for girls and women.  As an embodiment of the spirit of Rotary, Zarmina's personal story is a triumphant illustration of what can happen when people take action.
Zarmina's passion for living and her dedication to education are evident at first sight.  Her tale of surviving war in Afghanistan helped us to understand why.
The year 2009 marked the fulfillment of her promise to herself that she would return to her homeland following her immigration to Canada 22 years earlier.  Her joy in this is still palpable, as illustrated in the photo to the left, taken in the Province of Panjshir Valley.  
Zarmina considers herself fortunate to have been born to parents who valued education for girls.  Her grandfather had opened a school for girls in 1961.  From the time Zarmina was in Grade 8, she shared her love of learning, teaching literacy to women and girls who were not permitted to attend school themselves in a village located a 2-hour walk from her school.  She continued this until she finished Grade 11, at which time she moved to Kabul to complete her high school education.
In Kabul, she became a supervisor of literacy, helping with local outreach initiatives.  In 1981, Zarmina and 18 colleagues were travelling in a bus when they were hijacked by Mujahideen guerrilla soldiers.  Sixteen of those held, including Zarmina, were released 24 hours later, but three female colleagues died in this confrontation.  She returned to her hometown and gave up her work out of respect for her family's concern about her safety and their's.  Shortly after that terrifying incident, Zarmina returned to her studies and became a qualified as a teacher.
The war continued and took a severe toll on Zarmina's family when a rocket destroyed the family home, killing Zarmina's father.  In 1984, Zarmina, her husband and daughter fled to Pakistan, coming to Canada four years later.  In the twenty years that followed, Zarmina supported her widowed mother and 9 siblings from a distance, eventually sponsoring them to come to Canada as well.  She continued her work in education in Canada through employment as a supply teacher.
Visiting relatives in Kabul in 2009 reignited her passion to help women and children in Afghanistan through educational support.  This led her to found the Canadian Community Organization for Women and Youth (CCOWY).  With support from the Rotary Club of North York, CCOWY has led projects expand a girls’ high school, teach about nutrition, train women in hand and machine-operated knitting and sewing, open a subsidized daycare and more.
Inspired by her son's love of hockey, Zarmina initiated a project to bring hockey to Kabul, girls as well as boys.  Her experiences with this project led her to author a book, Hockey Girls of Kabul.
In May 2019, Zarmina did a walkathon fundraiser, walking over 400 kilometers in support of CCOWY.  Funds raised will be used to build a women's shelter.  Upon her arrival at Ottawa’s Centennial Flame, Zarmina was met by Barrie-Innisfil MP John Brassard, and later that day she also met with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.  While the walkathon presented many challenges, Zarmina found encouragement along the way, and intends to let that spirit fuel future journies in pursuit of gender equality.  If you feel inspired to join Zarmina's cause, you can help here.