When Matiullah Wesa was 9 years old, Taliban insurgents torched his community school in Marouf District in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province. Terrified and disappointed, Wesa thought this marked the end of his education because there was no other school in his war-ravaged village.
Fearing more Taliban violence, the villagers forced Wesa's father, who was determined to rebuild the school, to move out. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
"We moved to Kabul, where I graduated from high school," Wesa, the founder of PenPath, a community-based education support network in Afghanistan, told VOA.
Wesa's passion for education took him to India, where he pursued higher education in human rights and learned how to engage in a civic and apolitical campaign for girls' education in his native country.
With more than 70% of Afghan women unable to read and write, Afghanistan has the worst education indicators for women in Asia, according to the World Bank.
Trying to tackle the widespread illiteracy, Wesa has gone to all 360 districts of Afghanistan over the past decade, promoting education in some of the most marginalized and highly conservative parts of his landlocked country.
"We've opened tens of schools across the country where more than 110,000 students are enrolled," he said, adding that the work has not been easy.
"Twice we escaped direct firing at our car as we were traveling in rural areas … and there have always been people who call me names and threaten to kill me."
The PenPath network now has more than 2,400 volunteers across the country who help set up local classrooms, find teachers, distribute books and stationery, and organize community gatherings in support of education for both boys and girls.
"Our work is entirely apolitical, and we never oppose or support any political agenda," Wesa said.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and an education activist, said Wesa's work is extremely important in rural Afghanistan, where women's education and overall development are scarce.
"It's been 216 days since the Taliban's ban on secondary education for girls, and throughout this time, Matiullah Wesa has raised his voice for girls' education, and that proves that he is a fearless, tireless and unbending champion for education," the elder Yousafzai told VOA.
The Taliban's ban has denied secondary education for more than 1.1 million Afghan girls, according to the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF.
"Any grassroots initiatives that help communities to better understand the value of education for all children are extremely valuable in increasing demand for education and getting more girls into school," Samantha Mort, a UNICEF spokeswoman in Afghanistan, told VOA.
There are hundreds of community-based schools, mostly at mosques or in makeshift tents, in rural Afghanistan where tens of thousands of children learn how to read and write. Half of the students in those makeshift schools are girls, Mort said.
"The PenPath represents an extremely critical movement in Afghanistan," Shinkai Karokhail, a former member of the Afghan parliament and a women's rights activist, told VOA. "Nothing is more needed for a self-sufficient, independent and prosperous Afghanistan than education, and that's what this movement is striving to achieve," she added.
Over the past two decades, the U.S. government spent more than $1.2 billion on educational programs in Afghanistan. The European Union and other donors have also channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to nongovernmental organizations in support of education in the country.
Despite its vast outreach, the PenPath network has not received funding from foreign donors.
"I've personally dedicated everything to this cause," Wesa said, "and I've relied on support from family, friends and the communities that I serve."
As poverty deepens in Afghanistan, the PenPath founder finds it even more difficult to support classrooms and distribute books and stationery.
"Children's education is the first victim of poverty in our community," Wesa said, adding that more and more families find it difficult to feed their children.
Poverty and starvation threaten to take more lives in Afghanistan than the war took in the past two decades, aid agencies have warned.
Despite the risks and challenges facing his work, Wesa remains undeterred and optimistic.
"I see change in the way people think about women's education. In the past, people did not even talk about women's education. Now they're demanding it because they need female doctors, teachers, writers and what not," he said.