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Targeted for Violence, Schools Still Making Strides in Afghanistan
By Vaishali Honawar

Education Week


After a strong start, work on rebuilding Afghanistan’s school system has been challenged over the past two years by insurgents who have made schools one of their primary targets.

Several positive changes have helped reshape the country’s education landscape since 2001, when U.S.-led forces went to war in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, and world attention focused on a country where years of war, famine, and the extremist Islamic regime had crippled schools.

Today, more girls than ever before are attending school, and hundreds of new schools have opened doors, boosted by the international aid that has poured in.

Joshua Gross, a spokesman for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, said more than 3,200 schools have been rebuilt since 2002, 60 million textbooks published, and 50,000 teachers trained.

“Every year, more children are being enrolled as more people in rural areas are gaining access to schools,” he added.

The Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that 5.4 million children are now in schools, of whom 35 percent are girls—a huge improvement since before 2002, when just 1 million children were enrolled, almost none of them girls.

But on the flip side, nearly half of all school-age children are still out of school, and more than half the new schools are without buildings. Add to that the increasing violence that has forced several schools to close altogether and work on some others to stop. Afghan officials say the violence has prevented at least 200,000 children from attending school.

Insurgents, including reorganized Taliban forces, burned down 187 schools and killed 85 students and more than 40 teachers last year, according to Education Ministry statistics. Letters are often left at schools and along routes students and teachers take, warning them against attending school and threatening violence.

The extremists, Afghan officials have said, are opposed to girls’ schooling and to teaching boys anything other than religion.

Last week, gunmen riding on a motorbike sprayed bullets at girls outside a school near Kabul, killing two students. Last year, six children were killed in a single attack when a rocket hit their school in the eastern section of Kunar province.

International Help

According to those working on projects there, however, signs of progress are also all around, despite the violence.

A five-year plan to improve education was put forth last year by Minister of Education Mohammad Haneef Atmar. It sets a 2010 deadline to enroll 60 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys in schools. The plan includes establishing more teacher-training colleges in the country and crafting a new secondary school curriculum, as well as ensuring that 90 percent of the schools have buildings.

For the cash-strapped government of President Hamid Karzai, international aid has proved crucial in rebuilding the education system. The United Nations Children’s Fund has major education initiatives in Afghanistan, while the Vienna, Austria-based Help Afghan School Children Organization has been providing thousands of children with school supplies and has helped rebuild schools. Nearby India has also provided aid.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has been working with the Education Ministry on a slew of programs, said Vijitha Eyango, a senior education and gender adviser for the Asia and Near East Bureau of the USAID. Since 2002, the agency’s work has included partnering with others to build or refurbish more than 650 schools. It has also helped rebuild a teacher college in Kabul that was destroyed by factional fighting in 1992. The college now trains around 600 teachers a year.

The agency has spent $281 million on education in Afghanistan since 2002, although Congress has reduced funding over the past few years. It has dropped from a high of $107 million in 2004 to $62 million in 2007.

Ms. Eyango said the USAID will give $22 million over five years toward Mr. Atmar’s drive to reduce illiteracy. “I have never seen so much change and momentum,” she added.

Hunger for Learning

Cornelia Janke, an associate director with the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, was in Kabul last week to work on one of the group’s projects that aims to improve the living standards of communities through literacy programs.

“There is evidence that the country is progressing. There are many cars on the street; … there’s a lot happening,” Ms. Janke said.

But there are also areas, particularly in some southern parts of the country, where offering help has been difficult, if not impossible. In some cases, groups have been forced to abandon projects because of terrorist threats.

The Los Angeles-based Relief International has opened learning centers to provide computer skills to Afghan students at three schools as well as several women’s centers, and offers training for teachers. But the group was unable to move ahead with plans for a learning center in one pocket in the north after receiving terrorist threats, said Senita Slipac, a program officer for Afghanistan. “It seemed it would be too dangerous to open schools that [insurgents] would probably burn,” she said.

UNICEF has been working with the ministry to provide security solutions for schools, such as a rapid response when incidents arise.

In some cases, said Mr. Gross of the Afghan Embassy, local people have been working to keep schools open. In some villages, community groups formed by tribal elders police the schools when Taliban forces threaten them.

“When schools are burned down, students might sometimes meet under a tent, or under a tree, for their classes,” Mr. Gross said, because there is a “hunger and thirst for children to go to school.”

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