Girls Still Standing Outside the Classroom Door

As the second post-Taleban school year begins, poverty and prejudice are still keeping girls out of education.

Girls Still Standing Outside the Classroom Door

As the second post-Taleban school year begins, poverty and prejudice are still keeping girls out of education.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

In Kabul thousands of Afghan girls are beginning school for the second year since the collapse of the Taleban. But just outside the city limits, seven-year-old Nasreen wonders when it will be her turn.

“The motto, ‘Let’s go to read the lesson’, is written everywhere on every wall and corner, but I don’t know where or how,” she said.

The Afghan school term begins in spring, but there is no school for girls in Nasreen’s village in the Bagrami district. Her desire to learn is so keen that she has enrolled in private classes for girls, in which 80 female students each pay 30 afghanis a month, around 0.60 US dollars, to attend. But even that much can be a hardship in impoverished Afghanistan.

Such private schools are the only answer for some village girls while they wait for the government or an outside organisation to build them a school. Other families have moved to Kabul, at great expense and hardship, so that their female children can attend schools there.

But for the thousands of girls across Afghanistan who don’t have such options, there is no choice but to wait.

“We have suffered during the five years of the Taleban’s reign, but it’s even more serious now because there are no schools available,” said Jamila, a 15-year-old resident of Buth-Khak village in Bagrami. “The girls whose can afford to, go to city schools, but the rest of us are left hopeless at home.”

The problem also affects boys, for some remote villages in Afghanistan have no schools at all.

Even in Buth-Khak, less than 20 kilometres from Kabul, 3,000 families have children who needed a school, said district leader Muhibullah. The residents have appealed to the education ministry several times, to no avail - despite the fact that there is an existing plot of land just waiting for a school, he said. That is why they finally started the private classes.

Zakia, 20, a resident of Qala-e-Muslim of Char Asyab district, outside Kabul, told IWPR, “People around the world were condemning the Taleban for not giving enough rights to women... But now I don’t know who to condemn, because nobody prevents women here from going to school, yet there are no schools for us.”

The lack of schools is a massive problem with a number of contributing factors. The years of civil war destroyed schools; the student militia forbade girls from going to school; and some impoverished and remote villages have never had schools at all. An unexpectedly large number of refugees returning to the country and delays in funds from international donors have compounded the problem.

Even with these obstacles, hundreds of schools were renovated or built immediately after the Taleban’s fall, with the help of some 50 non-governmental organisations. More than 3.3 million children went back to schools when they reopened last spring.

Because of the demand, most children attend school half a day. A typical arrangement is for boys to attend in the morning and girls in the afternoon, noted Engineer Mohammad Mullah Baryalai, head of the education ministry’s construction section.

“However, there are few schools for girls in Zabul, Helmand, Farah, Nimroz, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Nooristan and some other provinces,” he said. “This is because local people in these provinces still have the idea that girls’ education is not legal.”

The ministry hopes to build 20 new schools in every province. But that will not be enough to take care of the shortfall.

UNICEF spent 16 million dollars last year to restore 1,800 schools in Kabul city and in the provinces of Mazar, Nangrahar, Kandahar and Herat, and it plans to rebuild 380 schools in rural areas and outlying regions of Kabul next year, a spokesman said. Kabul would take priority because so many refugees came there, he said.

Although Afghans generally greeted the new schools with joy, in some conservative areas the schools for girls were attacked or burned, and unsigned leaflets were circulated, warning parents against sending girls to school. In other areas, the opposition to girls’ schools was strong enough to prevent their being built in the first place.

Many mullahs and rural villagers are openly opposed to girls going to school, even when their daughters plead for an education.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, a young girl, Mahera, spoke at a ceremony in Parwan province. She said, “The world is going to the moon and across the Internet, but Afghan girls are living under fanatical prejudices. We want these mullahs to be quiet.”

Khan Mohammed Khan, local education director of Panjsher district in Parwan province, confirmed that the lack of schools for girls is due to opposition by religious scholars.

However, Mawlavi Abdul Hameed, one of the scholars of Panjsher, told IWPR, “We are against the girls’ education, but not absolutely. We want girls’ schools to be according to Islamic regulations. We want segregation and female teachers in girls’ schools. There shouldn’t be any men there at all. If girls are taught by female teachers in their houses, we will certainly agree with that.”

Parents are torn between the authority of the religious scholars and the pleas of their daughters asking for their educational rights.

Mujda Malikzada, a 20-year-old healthcare worker, pities the girls she sees in remote areas of Parwan and Kapisa provinces.

“When I go to the remote areas, a lot of girls encircle me, showing so much interest and such feelings,” she said. “They tell me, ‘We wish we were studying like you’.

“They look so hopeless. They tell me, ‘Please give our message to the international community so that we aren’t deprived of an education’.”

Ahmad Hanayesh and Mustafa Basharat are independent journalists in Kabul.

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