It’s 6am and Freshta is sweeping the floor of her makeshift cave school in Bamiyan province of Afghanistan.
Donkeys descend the orange-dirt hills of her timeless village to fetch water, while cave homes awake to the smell of freshly baked flatbread.
Up to 50 children, most of them girls, attend the informal school – not far from where historic giant Buddha statues were blown up by the Taliban 20 years ago.
The school runs for two hours daily in the morning offering an opportunity to the impoverished community at a time the country has been facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
“The community suggested gathering the children and teaching them basic English, Dari, maths, geography and the holy Quran,” Freshta, who only gave one name, told Al Jazeera.
“It became something bigger, year after year,” the 22-year-old, who started the school at the age of 12, said, adding that students, ranging from ages four to 17, mostly come from the cave village of 50 families.
Taliban return to power
Freshta said she was scared after the Taliban armed group returned to power in August. The last time the Afghan group was in power between 1996-2001, it banned women from education and jobs.
“My school was lovely and colourful, but when the Taliban took over Bamiyan I was very scared and my friends suggested I take down all the posters and drawings on the walls. They thought I was in danger, especially because I taught girls,” Freshta said.
“I put all the colours and pens in a plastic bag and threw it in the river Patablaghman,” Freshta, wearing a coloured headscarf, said.
“They [Taliban fighters] came three times,” she added, “looking for my neighbour who used to work for the local police, but he’d already fled. I was afraid, but they didn’t seem to know about my school.”
Freshta is the only teacher and her work is voluntary. She sometimes received donations from occasional visitors from the capital Kabul, but the school has survived thanks to her hard work.
“People here have economic problems, they are either farmers or are unemployed and the school is completely free,” she said. “These families wouldn’t be able to afford a private school, and government schools are far.”
The literacy rate in Bamiyan is low, particularly among girls, some 25 percent of whom are literate, according to UN figures.
Freshta is the only university graduate of her cave-village, having finished a midwifery course from Bamiyan university a few months ago. Many of her students said they want to study to become a teacher like her.
Education for women
The drive to give to others comes from the sudden loss of her mother at the age of two, the same age as her little half-brother now, whom she likes holding and kissing. She has six much younger step-brothers but also a 20-year-old sister, who is married.
“[My mother] is always with me,” she said, explaining how much she always loved learning English, which she spoke fluently, and how she was sustained by the sense of humour of her father – a 60-year-old farmer.
The issue of education for women has been a particularly controversial issue since the Taliban seized power last August as US-led forces withdrew after 20 years of war, and the West-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani collapsed.
Western governments and aid agencies have been pressing the Taliban to do more on human rights, education of girls and women empowerment. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of the Taliban’s government, still faces diplomatic isolation.
Last month Zabihullah Mujahid, government spokesman and deputy minister of culture and information, said the education department would open classrooms for all girls and women in the Afghan New Year, which starts on March 21.
Asked by Al Jazeera for details, Mujahid referred to the core role of “Islamic principles” in structuring the future of girls’ education.
“Islamic principles have a more technical aspect in this regard. [Women] should be physically and mentally safe when studying. Transportation issues should also be considered and the financial aspects, too. [Men and women] should be separate, to unite all the girls and women in the whole Islamic Emirate,” he said by email on January 25.
Addressing a key issue for Western governments in considering the resumption of aid to Afghanistan, Mujahid told Al Jazeera that “all stages of education will resume”. This would happen “according to the capacity and facilities of the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education”, he added.