Afghanistan Struggles to Rebuild Its Education System

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On the top floor of a modest two-story house in Jelga, a village in southeastern Afghanistan, three classrooms come to life five days a week as young girls eagerly deliberate over lessons in mathematics, language, religion, and home education.

For the past two years, a woman known as Zubaida—a former government official and the owner of the house—has struggled to fill the educational void left by 20 years of war, social conflict, and famine. Despite efforts by the Taliban to shut down schools throughout the country and deny girls all but the most basic education after it gained ascendancy in 1996, the villagers of Jelga saved their educational programs through intense and continuous negotiation with government officials.

There are similar survival stories throughout the country. But under the restrictive, Islamic-extremist regime, the future of low-profile and underground schools was often precarious. ("Religion Rules Afghan, Pakistani School Day," Oct. 10, 2001.)

Now that the heavy veil of Taliban rule has been lifted by the United States-led war in Afghanistan, dissident educators and relief workers are hopeful that the grassroots educational movement will now strengthen and thrive.

Daring efforts to sidestep Taliban laws have allowed at least basic literacy and math instruction for hundreds of thousands of children and adults in the war-ravaged country. But it will likely take a decade or more, and billions of dollars in aid, before Afghanistan rebuilds the public education system that was an object of national pride in the late 1960s and early 1970s, say the aid workers and education experts who track events in the country.

"At one time, there was compulsory education up to grade 12. One of the things they prided themselves on was education," said Alina Labrada, a spokeswoman for CARE, a private international-relief organization. "The people now feel like they have so much catching up to do. It's an entire generation that's lost the opportunity to learn."

Makeshift Schools

Throughout Afghanistan, people are setting up schools in homes, abandoned storefronts, and even tents while international organizations begin the rebuilding.

"Afghans are very interested in education," said Thomas Gouttierre, the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "It's going to be a situation where the Afghans won't be able to provide—nor will we be able to provide—education as rapidly as the Afghans want it."

Community-sponsored schools and individual instructors have been flooded with requests from parents eager for their children to attend classes. More than 1,600 children in Jelga are already on a waiting list to enroll in school, Ms. Labrada said.

Throughout the country, "demand is outstripping supply, and it probably will for a long time to come," according to Andrea Rugh, a consultant to UNICEF's Afghan Primary Education Framework.

The school in Jelga is one of 250 that have cropped up in southeastern Afghanistan as part of CARE's Community Organized Primary Education Project, or COPE. Over the past seven years, the project has grown to serve some 23,000 Afghan children, almost half of them girls, and many more are waiting to fill rare openings.

CARE operated the program in the country's rural southeastern region with the grudging approval of local Taliban officials, who buckled under pressure from villagers insistent on educating their children, Ms. Labrada said. CARE refused to waive its requirement that at least 30 percent of students be female, thus keeping schools open to girls in the region.

Once villages prove their commitment to continuing to educate their children, CARE helps build schoolhouses.

'Missing' Teachers

But the building-block initiatives are dwarfed by the larger need, some experts say. Discussions on how to rebuild the nation's school system are just beginning. The country, which is being led by a newly installed interim government, likely will have trouble finding the 27,000 teachers officials estimate they will need to educate the nation's 8 million school-age children.

Because the school system has been in shambles since the decade-long war between Soviet troops and Muslim resistance forces, many adults don't have the knowledge or skills to be teachers, according to Mr. Gouttierre and Ms. Rugh.

"There's a whole generation of missing teachers," Charles MacCormack, the chief executive officer of Save the World, said at a recent forum at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Save the Children has received a grant from the World Bank to train new Afghan teachers, many of whom haven't received schooling beyond 6th grade.

School officials should also offer a "GED-style" program that will train anyone with as little as three years of schooling to become teachers, Mr. Gouttierre said. In addition, officials can develop the skills of paraprofessionals who have worked in the underground schools.

Zubaida, who donated part of her home for the school in Jelga, trains three less-experienced teachers to teach effectively. But the curriculum and the materials needed to teach it are also lacking.

Still, the fall of the Taliban has given many Afghans the hope and determination, observers say, to rebuild their educational system, however long it might take.

"There is a kind of optimism and a lot of eagerness to get things moving and get kids in school," Ms. Labrada, the CARE spokeswoman, said in a recent interview by satellite phone from Afghanistan. "But they are really starting from scratch. ... You have to go school by school, village by village.

"Even though [the programs are] small," she continued, "it's a way to start the process of rebuilding, as opposed to waiting years for a system to emerge."

Vol. 21, Issue 16, Page 8

Published in Print: January 9, 2002, as Afghanistan Struggles to Rebuild Its Education System
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