Equity & Diversity

School Doors Shuttered for Afghan Girls

By Robert C. Johnston — June 06, 2001 5 min read
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Five years ago, Giti Shams lived in Afghanistan. Then a 10th grader in a state-run school, she planned to attend college and teach art.

When Taliban fighters drove the ruling government from the capital of Kabul in 1996, she thought the closure of schools in her city was a temporary step in the transition.

A month later, a radio broadcast announced that schools were reopening—for boys only.

Ms. Shams, who fled to the United States with her family nearly two years ago, couldn’t believe it. “We cried and felt hopeless,” she recalled recently. “It was like a nightmare, and we’d wake up and find it didn’t happen.”

Now 21 and working on her General Educational Development diploma, Ms. Shams hopes to study journalism or law at an American university one day.

International aid groups, alarmed by the lack of educational prospects in Afghanistan, are trying to fill the void for girls, as well as boys, whose schooling consists mostly of strict religious instruction.

The groups have started hundreds of small schools and sponsored the founding of others. They also lend a hand with material and other support to parents who start schools in their homes. Ms. Shams attended such a school for three years before leaving.

Keeping such schools open is not easy. Many have been shut down by Taliban officials at one point or another. While some must operate secretly, others are backed or at least tolerated by local leaders.

“One of the very worrying things is that the present generation will be much less educated in terms of quantity and quality than previous generations,” said Ellen van Kalmthout, the project officer for child development in Afghanistan for the United Nation’s Children’s Fund.

And it appears that the situation could worsen. In recent weeks, tensions between aid agencies and the country’s religious police have escalated over various Taliban policies.

“There are hardly any children graduating from secondary and higher levels of education,” she said. “This is very serious for the development of the country.”

Extreme Measures

Education rates historically have been low and unequal across urban and rural regions alike in the impoverished Southwest Asian country of 24 million, situated between Iran and Pakistan. But the educational restrictions on females appear to be the most restrictive of their kind in the world, observers agree, and can only worsen the country’s already meager 15 percent literacy rate for women.

The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, already prohibits women from working outside the home, except in health fields.

While international observers point out that enforcement of the education ban varies across the country, some women nonetheless have been beaten for operating schools or for teaching classes.

“It is something for which there is no parallel,” a U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named, said of Afghanistan’s education ban for girls.

Since ending state-run education for girls as part of their version of Islamic doctrine, Taliban leaders have backed off a little. In 1999, they began allowing state schools to accept girls, though largely for religious studies and only up to age 9.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, estimates that, out of 3 million Afghan children between 7 and 13 years old, 58 percent of boys and 6 percent of girls were enrolled in school in 1999.

By comparison, 35 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls were enrolled in 1990, UNESCO estimates.

UNESCO estimates that nongovernment agencies managed or sponsored 700 schools for boys and 530 schools for girls in 1999, while the state ran 2,300 schools for boys and 91 for girls.

Conditions in the nongovernment schools are far from ideal. Typically, students sit on carpets while instructors direct lessons from a blackboard.

Similar educational support efforts are under way in refugee villages in Pakistan, where more than 1 million Afghans have fled from their violence-torn homeland.

Save the Children, an international-aid agency in Westport, Conn., runs education services for about 22,000 children—about one-quarter of them girls—in the camps, mostly along the northern border of Pakistan.

In addition to launching more traditional schools, Save the Children started home-based schools for girls in 1997. The schools, often led by refugee mothers with little formal education, have softened long-standing cultural resistance to sending girls to school.

As a result, the percentage of Afghan girls in the refugee villages who attend classes jumped from 10 percent in 1995 to 39 percent in 1999.

To bolster school quality, international agencies have embarked on a delicate mission with Afghan educators to write standards and curricula.

After two years of work, basic expectations for learning and support materials for instructors are being published for arithmetic and language arts, and will be distributed to groups or individuals who want to start schools.

“They wanted to provide a common approach to the challenges of Afghan education,” said Andrea B. Rugh, a Maryland-based consultant who worked on the plan. “They also wanted a principled approach that provided benefits to children equally. They wanted lasting effects from their investments.”

Raising Awareness

More than 200 groups in schools throughout the United States are raising awareness and money in behalf of their student counterparts in Afghanistan through programs sponsored by the Feminist Majority Foundation, an advocacy and education group in Arlington, Va.

“To high school and middle school students, this is a tremendous awakening,” said Norma Gattsa, the deputy director of policy and programs for the Feminist Majority. “Education is so taken for granted here. But there, teachers can be risking their lives to go to school.”

At High Point High School in Beltsville, Md., several students gathered 2,100 signatures last semester for a petition sent to the White House, protesting the Taliban’s education policy. They also raised nearly $1,000 for refugee and underground schools.

Omaira, an Afghanistan native and High Point student who worked on the project, is struck by what her life might have been like if her family stayed there.

The 17-year-old, who asked that her last name not be used, maintains a B average. She plans to study all her life, and does not want to marry because she doesn’t want a man to tell her what to do.

“I feel lucky I’m here,” Omaira said. “One day, I hope that God, Allah, helps [the Afghans] out. If I were there, I’d have no educational opportunity.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as School Doors Shuttered for Afghan Girls


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