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US to build Afghan super-madrassas

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By Gethin Chamberlain in Paktika, Afghanistan

Sunday Telegraph (UK) / May 13, 2007

American forces in Afghanistan are building madrassas in an attempt to persuade parents not to send their children across the border to Pakistan for instruction at hard-line religious schools.

Work has started on two “super-madrassas” in Paktika, which borders Pakistan, and more are planned. The American government is also paying for the refurbishment of mosques in the area, in the hope of winning over religious leaders. The coalition has been under growing pressure over the deaths of civilians and American military commanders say they hope the moves will convince Afghans – many of whom rely on madrassas to provide bed and board for their children – that they are on the same side.

“We are saying that we respect their culture and religion,” said naval commander Eduardo Fernandez, the man in charge of American aid efforts in the Sharana district of Paktika. “We have to give the religious leaders the respect they feel they deserve.”

Each madrassa will accommodate 1,000 boarding pupils, all of them boys.

The US military insists that the schools, which it calls “centres for educational excellence”, will be administered by the Afghan education ministry, but admits there is a risk that they will be vulnerable to radical Islamic preachers. Madrassas in Pakistan have frequently been linked to the indoctrination of young Muslim men who have joined the insurgents in Afghanistan or been trained to become terrorists in the West.

“In Afghan terms it is a madrassa, but those words have baggage and if word gets back to a Western public that we are building madrassas, that is a bad thing,” said Major Jason Smallfield, 37, an American officer in Sharana. “It is a religious school, but it is not a religious education. The governor is trying to ensure that there is some sort of control over the curriculum, to ensure that radical Islam is not being fomented through these schools.”

More than five years after the fall of the Taliban, education remains a battleground in Afghanistan. For many children, the choice is still a religious education, or no education at all.

In the village of Badam Qul, about 20 miles south-west of the capital, Kabul, the only education available for 200 families is at the mosque. For a while, said Suleiman Mirafzal, a village elder, there had been a conventional school, but the money for it ran out. Now, the nearest school is a two-hour walk along a narrow dirt track which runs through a vast minefield, laid during the Soviet occupation.

In the winter, snow covers stone markers painted red and white to show the only safe path through the mines, which still claim victims regularly. There is also a threat from wolves, which come down from the mountains to search for food.

Parents wanted their children to go to school, said Amngul Didargul, a teacher, because they had noticed the improvement in their behaviour. But Mr Mirafzal said many parents, who could not afford to feed their children and keep them warm through the winter, found it simpler and safer to send them to madrassas in Pakistan.

Under the Taliban, much of the Afghan population was denied an education, and 90 per cent of women and 63 per of men are illiterate. The remnants of the old regime still try to exert their will, killing teachers and burning down schools. Of 154 schools in the south-western province of Oruzgan, 107 are closed; 58 of those have been burnt or damaged and the rest are shut because teachers are too frightened to attend.

Schools that employ women teachers and admit girls are most at risk of becoming Taliban targets – one reason why, across Afghanistan, 70 per cent of boys are in school but only 40 per cent of girls.

At the Qali Aday school outside Kabul, the British charity Save the Children covers much of the cost of educating 570 pupils, aged from six to 17, in subjects including geography, history, science and English.

Yet even in such a model school, the inherent problems facing the Afghan education system are evident. The school is short of eight teachers and there is not one woman on its staff, a legacy of the years in which women were denied access to any education. Government funding has dried up and the school relies on charity.

The headmaster, Abdul Qadir, admitted it was a struggle to persuade parents to send their daughters to school when a girl who trains to be a teacher might earn the equivalent of £30 a month, while one who learns a trade such as tailoring can pull in three times that.

“The parents of girls are saying, ‘Don’t go to school’,” he said. “As the salaries of teachers go down they say to the girls that they won’t be able to feed their families on that money.”

Girls wanted to study so that they could become doctors or teachers, said one pupil, Palwasha, 14, but they face challenges unknown to Western schoolchildren. Sports such as football and volleyball are off limits because there is no walled-off area where they can be screened from male eyes.

They also fear the Taliban. Wazhma, 13, said a letter had been pushed under the door of another school recently, warning that if girls continued to attend, it would be burnt down. Yet in some places parents accept that the future lies in education. In the village of Oria Khail, over the mountains from Badam Qul, Mahtab, a mother of 10, said they had to persevere.

“I want to see development like in other countries,” she said. “We can’t do anything on our own. But with support, in 15 to 20 years, we will have our own doctors and teachers and engineers in this village.”

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Written by afghandevnews

May 14, 2007 at 4:33 am

Posted in Aid, Education

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