A positive attitude toward female education in northeastern Afghanistan
Monday, 11-June-2001 - Refugee International Report:
The Taliban, who control 90 percent of Afghanistan, are well known for their decrees prohibiting women from attending school, limiting women's right to employment, and segregating the sexes. A much more positive attitude toward female education prevails in northeastern Afghanistan where a Taliban-opposition government controls 10 percent of Afghan territory and a population of about 1.5 million. Government officials claimed that the percentage of girls in primary school in the northeast equals that of boys. Education, particularly of girls, is one of the most effective means of encouraging economic development and societal change. Educated women are more productive and healthier and have a much greater opportunity of escaping the grinding poverty that is the lot of so many of the world's people, including the vast majority of Afghans. In northeastern Afghanistan the international community has an opportunity to contribute to educational programs to benefit girls and women.
An RI team visited several schools in northeastern Afghanistan. In this poor, remote, and rugged region, access to education for both boys and girls is still far from universal because of a lack of schools. The quality of education at all levels is very low. However, we saw several examples of schools which demonstrated a local demand and support for education and an acceptance of the principle that girls should have access to education.
In Faizabad, the capital of this region, a co-educational medical school was established three years ago. The medical school consists of one large, ramshackle classroom building flanked by a dormitory. The school has 300 students, of whom 140 are women. About 100 of the students are from Faizabad and live at home. The other 200 come from all parts of Afghanistan and live in the dormitory. The faculty consists of about 20 teachers, several of them women. Men and women students attend the same classes, but are separated by sex, the boys usually sitting at the front of the room, the girls at the back. Within the medical school is also a school of nursing which counts another 30 students, one-third women.
The course of instruction is seven years long, as students enter the medical school directly from secondary school. Course work includes social studies, languages (English), and other subjects as well as the usual course work of a medical school.
The medical school counts only the most basic facilities. The library consists of a few hundred books, mostly old English or Iranian medical texts. The laboratories have only a few items of equipment and in some classrooms there are not even enough desks for the students to be seated. "Everything," was how an American medical doctor described the needs. But classroom furniture, he added, would be the first priority, "so at least the students have a place to sit down and work." The World Health Organization has provided a small amount of aid to the school. For all its shocking lack of facilities, the medical school illustrates the demand for education among the youth of northeastern Afghanistan and the public acceptance of education for women and girls.
Beyond the medical school, RI saw other examples of a demand by the populace for education at all levels. In the town of Rustaq, people displaced from their homes by the war took the initiative to establish a primary school for their children. About 850 children, aged between six and fourteen, attend the school that is divided about equally between boys and girls. The boys attend in the morning; the girls in the afternoon. The children sit on the floor in most classrooms and even items such as blackboards and chalk are lacking. An American NGO is seeking resources to support the school and has compiled an annual operating budget estimate of $8,000 - which includes salaries for the 31 teachers.
We heard of another example of local initiative. In the inaccessible district of Shighnan, parents and local officials are supporting what is reputed to be the only co-educational teacher training school in Afghanistan. The students - 182 men and 57 women - are taught by four ancient professors. No foreign or government aid has reached this school and the needs include books, equipment, maps, furniture, and other basic items.
The difficulties of supporting education in northeastern Afghanistan are immense. Textbooks in Dari -- the most commonly spoken language -- are reportedly printed in Jalalabad, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but getting books across the front lines is difficult -- to say the least. UNICEF provides assistance to primary schools via a once-a-year mule train of educational supplies which originates in Pakistan and crosses the towering Hindu Kush mountains. Most of the foreign aid provided to northeastern Afghanistan is humanitarian and short-term, especially food for people displaced by war and affected by a three-year drought that has caused agricultural production to plummet. Although a handful of Afghan and international NGOs are implementing small health and education projects, most economic developers and development agencies will shy away from this unpromising, besieged, and isolated region. The local government's resources to support education and other social and development programs are very limited.
Moreover, the demand for education, especially education for girls, in this region is far from universal and is still likely controversial among some segments of the population. Afghanistan is a very conservative traditional society. Save the Children recently reported that nation-wide only eight percent of girls and 22 percent of boys are in school and that female literacy is less that six percent. Many of the negative attitudes toward education, especially girl's education, which prevail in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would also be common in the northeast. Intrusive foreigners and foreign-managed programs in the northeast could easily cause a counter-productive backlash in what is now a relatively friendly atmosphere for international aid agencies and NGOs.
Still, an opportunity is being missed to provide a better education to Afghan boys and girls who are struggling to learn under the most difficult conditions. Sensitive, low-key, and small-scale foreign aid to education could be well-utilized in northeastern Afghanistan.
Another promising field of endeavor in northeastern Afghanistan is drug education and prevention and treatment of opium addiction. Opium is traditionally grown in this region and is one of the few remedies in the population's pharmacopoeia. Men, women, and even infants have high rates of addiction. (Parents often relieve their children's pain and treat illnesses by blowing opium smoke into their lungs.) One foreign NGO is working on drug education and treatment in the northeast with good results.
Refugees International, therefore, recommends:
Donors, international agencies, and NGOs consider providing educational materials and other support to schools in northeastern Afghanistan. Schools to be aided should have strong local support and foreign aid should only supplement -- never supplant -- local efforts. Donors should be aware that the cost of transporting educational materials to northeastern Afghanistan will be extremely high.
Donors consider support for drug education and treatment of opium addicts, especially children.
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