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Demand for Helmand Schools to Reopen
A school in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Photo: Gol Ahmad Ehsan)
Residents of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province say nearly half the schools there remain closed, and they dispute claims by education officials that it would not be safe to reopen them.
Schools in Helmand were closed because of threats and attacks by the Taleban, and institutions for girls suffered disproportionately. The provincial education department says 153 out of 360 schools are not functioning, leaving 51,000 out of 136,500 school-age children without an education.
Local people say the official figures understate the problem.
Schools remain closed in areas close to Lashkar Gah, the main provincial town which is regarded as fairly safe, and even within its municipal boundaries. No schools at all are open in Dishu in the southeast or in Baghran in the north.
The director of education in Helmand, Mohammad Nasim Safi, says the situation remains dangerous, and schools will reopen only when adequate security measures are in place.
"We built a school in Lashkari Bazaar, [an area] which security officials claimed was safe," he said. "When we went to open it, the armed opposition planted a mine that was intended to kill us. How, then, can we persuade teachers to travel to remote areas where it won’t be safe for them to operate?"
That view is disputed by local people and also the police.
Basir Ahmad, a resident of Lashkari Bazaar, said schools in his area had remained closed for the last three years, even though the situation was much improved because of the numerous army checkpoints.
"Our children walk seven kilometres every day to get to other schools. If the security situation is so poor, how is it that they don’t run into trouble on the way to school?” he asked, noting that repeated appeals to the education department had failed. “The department makes empty excuses," he added.
Raz Mohammad from the Sra Gudar area in Nahri Saraj, just north of Lashkar Gah, complained that schools there had stayed shut for the last six years.
"There are no problems in our area to force schools to close," he said. "People now understand the value of education and they wouldn’t allow anyone to attack or burn our schools."
Both Basir Ahmad and Raaz Mohammad said parents in their areas had promised to arrange security precautions themselves, but local education officials were unresponsive.
Helmand’s chief of police, Abdol Nabi Elham, rejected the argument that the situation was too volatile to allow schools to reopen.
"The director of education talks about poor security in certain districts, but the claims he makes are wrong. Some schools in Lashkar Gah, where security is guaranteed, are closed as well," he said.
The deputy chairman of Helmand’s provincial council, Abdol Bari Fayaz, said it was unacceptable for 153 schools to remain shut, whatever the security challenges.
"We have spoken several times to Education Minister Faruq Wardak about education in Helmand," he said. "He made many promises, but none has been delivered so far. Only time will tell when Helmand will have a good, functioning education system."
In many of the schools that are functioning, conditions are basic.
Mohammad Eshaq, head of a school in the Gireshk in the Nahri Saraj district, said classes were held outside in tents or in a patch of shade, for want of a building.
Staff pay was also a major issue, he said, explaining, "We’ve had to close our school three times because our salaries weren’t being paid. We were promised plots of land on which we [teachers] would be able to build houses, and an extra risk payment, but we haven’t received any of this.”
Mohammad Eshaq concluded, "With things as they are in the schools that are supposed to be functioning, there’s no point complaining about the ones that are closed.”
Abdul Ahad, a pupil in the 12th grade, said resources were thin on the ground, and pupils sometimes did not receive textbooks until half way through the academic year.
"Some of the teachers know less than their pupils," he added. "Either there are no professionals, or there are too few of them to make any difference."
Education chief Safi said such problems existed everywhere in Afghanistan, but were worse in Helmand because it was such a dangerous environment.
"The shortage of textbooks is a problem all over the country, but the security issues in Helmand makes transporting textbooks, stationary and other school materials into a major problem,” he said. “If these issues are addressed, the quality of education in Helmand will improve."
Gol Ahmad Ehsan and Nazir Ahmad Woror are IWPR-trained reporters in Helmand province.
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