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Hard Lessons in Herat Schools

Despite a ban on corporal punishment, schoolteachers in Herat insist on beating knowledge into their charges.
By Sadeq Behnam
Nine-year-old Mahbuba has been beaten so many times by her teacher that she is afraid to go back to school.

Showing her bruised hands, she said, "Our teacher is a very bad person. My hands have gone black because of the beatings. I hate my teacher and school."

Mahbuba's father Nurullah, who lives in the western Afghan province of Herat, is sympathetic to her plight – and he is furious with the school.

"I send my child to school so that she’ll learn something, not for her to be beaten by vicious teachers," he said, adding that he has already had to take Mahbuba to a nearby hospital to have her hands treated.

Nurullah warned that if the teacher beat his daughter again, he will beat up the teacher and - as many parents have done already - withdraw the child from school.

The head of Herat’s provincial education department, Mohammaduddin Fahim, said beating and other forms of ill-treatment were against the country’s education law, and any teacher found to be doing so would face legal sanctions.

Fahim said his department had sent out letters to all the schools in the province ordering them to put a stop to corporal punishment.

"This problem is mostly caused by high school graduates who have become schoolteachers,” he said. “We have launched training courses for teachers across the province in order to eliminate violence against children. In addition, a delegation from the provincial education department inspects schools every month.”

Mohammad Muhsen Ismailzada, who represents the Afghan education ministry in Herat, confirmed that physical punishments are not legal, "Teachers have no right to use violence against school kids. If a pupil does anything wrong, the teacher should not react in haste, but find a way to resolve the problem."

Teachers in the province - where at least half a million children, two-fifths of them girls, attend about 600 schools - remain unrepentant about using violence, and openly hostile to instructions telling them to change.

"In my experience, unless pupils are beaten they will not be corrected,” said Abdul Karim, a headmaster in the Pashtunzarghun district. “We don’t accept the ministry's letter saying teachers don’t have the right to beat students. Pupils should be told that teachers do have the right to beat them. They have begun disobeying teachers since the letter was sent out to schools."

Khowaja Mohammad Nadir Seddiqi, the head of the teachers union in western Herat province, argued that since Afghan children had grown up surrounded with violence, they would not study unless they were beaten.

He had a simple message for his colleagues, "Teachers should use canes to beat their pupils, so that they fear them."

Saifuddin Maulawizada, a teacher in the Guzra district, described how he regularly beats his charges by tying up by their feet and beating them on the soles with a stick.

"If I don't have a stick with me, I can’t teach because the pupils don’t listen to me and they disrupt the lesson," said Maulawizada.

Psychologists and human rights activists in Herat are concerned that violence against children has serious long-term consequences.

"In foreign countries, beating and threatening children is regarded as a crime for which the perpetrator is punished, whereas in our country, children are punished for very minor things,” said Abdul Salam Hikmati, a member of the psychologists' association in Herat. “This results in the child becoming alienated from society."

Rahima Halimi, who heads the children’s rights section of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s Herat branch, said, "Violence against children is widespread both in the home and at school, and has a negative impact on children's minds. We have voiced the problem several times to the officials concerned, but no measures have been taken."

Apart from banning schools from administering physical punishment, Ismailzada said education officials are planning other steps to bring about change.

"Students' councils will soon be established in schools so that pupils will have a right to voice their problems. Parents’ associations will also be set up shortly. If students do anything wrong, the problem will be resolved with their families rather than by beating them," he said.

Until these changes happen, pupils like Masooma, 11, will go to school only as long as their parents make them.

"Our teacher beats me until blood comes out of my nails,” she said. “I am not an animal. I go to school to study, not to be beaten.

"I don't want to go to school, but my parents force me to."

Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali are IWPR contributors in Herat.

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