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Education Crisis in Helmand

Insecurity and funding delays mean students face bleak future.
By IWPR Afghanistan
Bismillah Jan, a student at Abdul Matin high school in the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, is visibly angry. He says he will be forced to give up his studies if promised funds do not arrive soon.



“I live in a rented room that is not fit for human habitation. When Education Minister Hanif Atmar came to Helmand two years ago, he promised to give each student [a monthly allowance]. But we receive nothing,” he said.



Bsimillah Jan, from nearby Nad Ali, is among more than 2,000 high school students from other districts who have come to Lashkar Gah to study, said Sher Agha Safi, the director of the Helmand department of education. In many districts of the war-ravaged province, schools have been closed because of the fighting; in some no secondary schools ever existed.



Out of 282 schools in Helmand, only 115 are open, Safi said, with a total of 68,000 boys and 15,000 girls able to study. This is less than half the number who were in school a few years ago, according to education officials.



The lack of facilities means that those who want to continue their studies are forced to come to the relative safety of the provincial capital.



Safi said education officials have prepared lists of the students and have located the funds to pay them. “We will soon begin distributing the funds to the students using the Kabul Bank,” he said.



The plan is to provide each approved student two dollars per day for the nine months of the school year - and the education department will issue bank cards that allow them to access the money. In addition to the grants, it’s envisaged that two new schools and a dormitory will be built, and 20 additional school buildings refurbished.



Despite the rosy picture painted by the education department, students in Lashkar Gah are unhappy. Promises are fine, they complain, but nothing has so far been delivered that will make their lives a bit easier.



“We have all kinds of facilities at the school,” said a student from Helmand’s agricultural high school. “But we have no place to stay. I live in a room with 11 other students; the place would be too small even for six. We cannot study; we cannot even sleep.”



Abed, who came to Lashkar Gah from Nawa district, which was recently the site of a major US offensive, said he had been issued with an identity document and a bank card over a year ago but so far he has not been able to get any money.



“First there were mistakes with the ID cards. They would mix up the names and the photos. Then they sent incorrect lists to the ministry of education. If the department of education is not capable of writing the names of 2,000 students correctly, how can it raise the level of education?” he said.



Education director Safi acknowledged that there had been a few glitches, but denied that the problems were as severe as portrayed by the students.



“We encourage students to study,” he said. “Last year we had 900 students come to Lashkar Gah, but when we began to offer financial support, the number increased to 2,500.”



However, a teacher at Kharaj high school, in Nawa district, said the students were right to complain about the department of education. Schools in the districts are either closed or not functioning, the teacher said, and once they go to Lashkar Gah the students are on their own.



“There is no education at our school,” said the teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When the school year started we opened our doors, but no teachers came. The education department did not even send a delegation to Nawa to see what was going on.”



He said students who went to Lashkar Gah often had nowhere to sleep. “I have been hearing for the past two years that they are building dormitories and providing cash for students. But the students would not be complaining if they had received these funds,” the teacher said.



Marjah, near the capital, is also suffering from severe security problems and has been under the complete control of the Taleban for several years.



"When the Taleban came to Marjah in 2007, the first thing they did was to destroy Marjah high school,” said one student, who did not want to give his name. “The fighters stored their weapons in our old classrooms. All the schools are closed, and we have all been deprived of an education. My life is ruined. I have had to abandon my studies more than once.”



Without money to live on, the students say they will have to quit school and go back to their districts.



“If we are killed by the Taleban or just grow up uneducated, it will be the government’s fault,” one said.



President Hamed Karzai came to Helmand in January and met some children, asking them whether they were in school.



“The children told him ‘no’,” a Nawa resident said. “But the president never asked why. It is a great shame when… children are deprived of an education.”



According to Ghulam Sarwar Ghafari, an instructor at the Teachers’ Training Institute in Lashkar Gah, disaster is looming.



“If this situation continues for another two years, the level of education and literacy in Helmand will fall to zero,” he said. “There are not enough teachers, and students get no support. Lack of attention from the central government will cause the number of students to drop to a handful.



“If nothing is done we will face a crisis, God forbid. All of our problems arise from illiteracy and the closure of schools.”



Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.

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