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

Schools Face Murderous Challenge

The Afghan success story of getting both boys and girls back into school is failing badly in Helmand province.
By IWPR trainees
In the post-Taleban era, going to school was supposed to have become easier, but teachers and pupils at the Chan Jir High School for Boys have been threatened regularly. Then, on January 7 this year, the headmaster of this school in Helmand province was murdered.

The threats continued. “Teachers have been warned that if they re-open the school, the same thing will happen to them,” said one teacher from the Chan Jir school, too afraid to give his name because he feared of reprisals. “But we don’t know who’s threatening us.”

As a result of the warnings, the school remains closed, leaving 1,700 students without an education and 35 teachers out of work.

This came as a blow to one of Chan Jir's students, Rahimullah, a 19 year-old, who like many Afghans goes by one name. He and his fellow students are now able to study subjects once banned under the Taleban, such as mathematics and science, and girls are allowed to attend school again. But when the headmaster was killed, his school shut down before he could graduate.

“I had many hopes,” said Rahimullah. “I worked for 12 years and had just four months left to graduate. When our principal was killed, everything was destroyed… And [now] parents are too afraid to send their daughters to school.”

Progress on education has been heralded as one of Afghanistan's great triumphs since the fall of the Taleban, who ruled from 1996 to 2001. But residents of Helmand, one of the country's largest provinces, have steadily seen their schools close and class attendance decline.

From 2001 to 2003, no schools were burned in Helmand. But as in many provinces that border Pakistan, warfare with insurgent forces swelled here in the years that followed. According to local people and education officials, the worsening security in Helmand has sometimes been directed towards schools, teachers, and students.

Saiful Maluk Noori, head of the provincial education department, said that out of the 224 schools in Helmand, about 111 are closed. Schools are only operating in three out of the province’s 14 districts.

In the last five years, Helmand has built 80 new schools and rebuilt 16. But within that same period, 36 schools have been torched and the Taleban and others have killed 30 teachers and students, said Noori.

All told, the Afghan education ministry says 2006 was the worst year for school violence since the 2001, with 64 students and education staff killed and 191 schools burned nationwide. Most of the attacks have occurred in provinces that border Pakistan.

Like most government officials, Noori blamed the insurgents, though many in Helmand admit they cannot be certain the attacks on schools are the Taleban's handiwork.

The growing violence has compelled Hamayoon, a 32-year-old mother from the Marja district, to halt her children’s education.

“Months ago, I stopped letting my children going to school because my children and I received threats from the Taleban or some other people,” she said, echoing many parents' concerns. “They warned me, ‘If you go to school we will kill you’.

“I know my children’s future will be worse if they don’t go to school; they will not learn, and they will not be educated. I have asked the government to improve security in Marja district, especially for the schools.”

The Taleban are often accused of targeting girls-only and co-education schools. When they ruled Afghanistan with their puritanical religious dogma, they forbade education for girls and banned most non-Islamic studies. Once the Taleban government was toppled after the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, girls were able to return to school again.

But in Helmand, like many parts of the country, the percentage of girls attending school is far smaller than it is for boys. According to Noori, out of the 111,000 pupils registered in Helmand, 99,000 are boys. The education ministry says that countrywide, there are roughly six million children enrolled in state schools, of whom 35 per cent are girls.

Yet, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taleban spokesperson, pledges that once they return to power, "We will educate girls. We didn’t do so previously because the situation was not good. Just when we were ready to open schools, our government was overthrown."

Ahmadi added that such schools would essentially be religious schools or madrassas, where Islamic subjects are taught.

"We will not teach subjects like maths and science," he said. "We want to bring people over to our side; that is why we will be opening schools."

Ahmadi denied that the Taleban were behind the violence that has targeted schoolhouses, teachers and pupils.

“We do not burn schools or kill teachers,” he said. “We have only burned two schools in Afghanistan - one in Ghazni and one in Zabul. [And] that’s because they were preaching Christianity… Those who are burning schools are just trying to vilify the Taleban.”

The threat of violence is not the only thing upsetting Afghan schooling. Helmand province is the country’s largest producer of opium, accounting for about 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s total, and nearly 40 per cent of the world’s supply.

During harvest season, from late May to late June, many pupils leave their classes to work on poppy fields, where they can earn up to 330 US dollars in two weeks.

Interviews with pupils from five Helmand schools indicated that about half of them drop out during the poppy harvest. According to one teacher, opium cultivation removes takes away most of her class during the spring season.

“If there are 2,000 pupils in the school, 1,500 of them leave to harvest poppy," she said.

But this teacher added that school staff also work the fields during the poppy harvest to augment their meagre incomes.

Despite this, in the face of ongoing violence and opium growing, some parents remain dedicated to providing their children with an education.

Huma, a mother from Helamand’s provincial capital Lashkar Gah, is one such parent who braves myriad challenges for her children.

“Last year, unidentified gunmen fired on a school in the city and killed a pupil and a school guard,” she said. “That means the schools are not safe for our children. Things can happen at any time.”

Yet Huma still allows her children to go to school. “When they leave the house in the morning, I pray to God until they’re back at noon,” she said.

IWPR has initiated a journalist training programme in Helmand province, and is working with reporters in Lashkar Gah and elsewhere. This story is a compilation of their reporting.