Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Education Challenge

The new authorities in Kabul face a huge challenge rebuilding an education system destroyed by years of conflict
By Siddiq Pathman

One of the consequences of over two decades of civil conflict in Afghanistan has been the collapse of the country's education system. An entire generation, now grown up, has been denied access to even basic studies.

The task of rebuilding Afghanistan's schools and universities, virtually from scratch, represents a formidable challenge.

Over 2000 school buildings have been destroyed in the last twenty years and around 80 per cent of children have no classrooms to got to, prompting the charity Connected Giving to call the situation a "national emergency".

UNICEF's Richard Koser says literacy levels are currently at a critical level. He estimates them at around 40 and 10 per cent for men and women respectively.

The education of girls and women has been hardest hit as they were forbidden all but primary schooling under the Taleban. But boys, especially in provincial areas, have suffered too. Many of them were plucked from the classroom to serve in the private armies which have dominated Afghan culture for so long.

On top of this, most of the country's intellectuals and professionals have fled Afghanistan over the last five years because the Taleban's brand of fundamentalist Islam left them without a role to play. This has left the country with a limited pool of teachers and university lecturers.

UNICEF estimates there are currently just 20,000 teachers in the country - hardly enough to cater for the four million children of school age. With a million and a half of them expected to turn up for class in March, the job of recruiting staff is an urgent one.

For the time being, the UNICEF's priority, says Koser, is to provide emergency heating, and furniture for Kabul's 500 schools.

The charity has been involved in Afghanistan for a number of years although it withdrew support for Taleban-run schools as a consequence of the regime's ban on female education.

UNICEF has, however, been providing funding and basic equipment for the home-based schools which sprang up in lieu of state facilities. It supported just 3000 pupils back in 1999. The figure is now expected to increase a hundred fold.

The desire to catch up on lost education impressed UNICEF executive Carol Bellamy during a visit to Afghanistan earlier this month. "Parents are so eager to send their kids to school," she said, "that they were pushing them into home-based programmes rather than wait until the beginning of the school year in March."

Koser told IWPR that talks were already under way with the new education minister Abdul Rassoul Amin on the formulation of a national education policy. This is necessitated by the beleaguered state of a curriculum, which is way out of date.

Besides the age of textbooks, schools operating these past two decades have been used by various regimes to promote their respective political or religious beliefs.

In drawing up a new curriculum, the new interim government, along with UNICEF and other international bodies, will need to satisfy all the various ethnic and religious factions in the country and not appear to benefit one group over the other. "It will have to be started from scratch," said former education minister Masooma Esmati Wardak.

Back in the early Nineties, Wardak embarked on an ill-fated attempt to establish a new curriculum. Over a period of a few years, she and a team of education experts started preparing textbooks for primary and secondary schools. However, continued conflict in the early Nineties put an end to the project.

"If the plans for these have survived," said Wardak, "they could still be used as a basis for the new curriculum."

It's hoped the onset of peace will provide children with a chance to make something of their lives. And many of them relish the prospect of getting back into the classroom. The 15-year-old child warlord Mohammed Aga Humayun Khadim told IWPR back in October he couldn't wait to continue his education.

Siddiq Pathman is the editor of the Peshawar-based Mahaz newspaper.