When Khatera (whose last name is being withheld for her privacy) was growing up in Herat, Afghanistan, her brother Ghulam was a translator for U.S. troops clearing poppy fields in the southern province of Helmand. He was part of an ongoing mission to reduce the Taliban’s production and export of opium, which is derived from poppies.
Ghulam would come home with stories about run-ins with drug traffickers and mine-blasting opium labs that bankrolled the Taliban. Khatera was reminded of those stories last year in a class on game design.
“What my brother did throughout those years of being in the military was not easy,” Khatera says. “I wanted to have a role in bringing peace to my country.”
So she built a game to share Ghulam’s stories.
“Fight Against Opium” is a new mobile application that casts players as an Afghan soldier clearing opium from the countryside. It joins more than 20 games on the Google Play store created by students at Code to Inspire, an after-school program in Herat that trains young women for careers in coding and design.
Code to Inspire was founded in 2015 by Fereshteh Forough, a computer science professor at Herat University. After attending a startup incubator through the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan with her business partner, they created a nonprofit that became her launch pad for Code to Inspire.
Through teaching, Forough observed limitations that keep Afghan women from technology. Female enrollment in universities has jumped from zero to 20 percent since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, but less than a third of women enter the workforce. Since it is not socially acceptable in Afghanistan for women to work outside the home, Forough believes coding — which can be done at home — is a good career opportunity for Afghan women.
With a small fundraiser and 20 in-kind laptop donations, she created a safe place for girls in secondary school and university to work on their coding.
“To get a girl from never touching a computer to creating a website is a long process,” says Forough. “Since we started, the local community has learned a lot about coding and technology and how women can be a part of it.”
Forough now lives in New York City, where she works on building her students’ networks in the global tech community. Some Code to Inspire students will work with their American counterparts at Girls Who Code on a video for 2018’s International Day of the Girl. Earlier this year, an international gaming convention invited Khatera and her team to showcase their work on “Fight Against Opium.”
“My family is proud of me for what I did, especially my brother,” says Khatera, who plans to be a game developer after graduation.
“Fight Against Opium” begins with an encouragement to farmers to replace poppy fields with saffron, a strategy to reduce the amount of opium coming out of Afghanistan.
“By creating this game, we showed that there is a better substitute for opium, which is saffron,” Khatera says.