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Fighting the Taleban with literacy

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BY Jill McGivering
BBC News, Lashkar Gah, Helmand
Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Khalai Kohna High School in Lashkar Gah, the main town in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, is hailed as a success story.

It’s dusty and lacks power and drinking water and the children share books.

But it is open, giving several hours of education a day to more than 1,000 boys and, in the afternoons, more than 600 girls.

It is a rarity. The vast majority of children in Helmand cannot go to school.

Khalai Kohna managed to open earlier this year because Lashkar Gah is a bubble of relative security, even though it’s surrounded by the Taleban.

One of the school’s science teachers, Abdul Raziq, says the fight against the Taleban must also take place in the classroom.

Key weapon

“The current insecurity is because of the illiteracy in our country,” he told me.

“If the people were literate, they wouldn’t have this insurgency now. That’s why I’m trying to do what I can to educate the future generation, so they can serve their country, instead of destroying it.”

Development is seen as a key weapon in the battle to win hearts and minds.

The thinking is that evidence of functional local institutions – a thriving school or a busy clinic – will encourage people to support the Afghan government and turn against anti-government forces such as the Taleban.

I flew by military helicopter to the district of Garmsir with one of the province’s leaders, Deputy Governor Abdul Sattar.

He was launching a new wheat seed distribution programme, an attempt to persuade local farmers to plant wheat instead of poppies.

Several hundred farmers, mostly older men with long beards and all with traditional Afghan headwear, sat cross-legged in an open courtyard in the sun and listened as the deputy governor addressed them.

His speech was a rallying cry, an attempt to bolster belief in the government and the brighter future it promised.

‘Two-way process’

He urged the farmers to be patient. Garmsir was very poor and wracked by decades of violence, he said.

The government would help it rebuild – but it must be a two-way process. The people must support the government in return, he added.

Mr Sattar also had a strong emphasis on self-help.

Instead of demanding security from the government, he said, people should make sure their children went to school to study, instead of joining the Taleban to fight.

And instead of complaining that there were no teachers in the schools, they should identify some people with education and send them forward to train as teachers.

Many of the farmers listening were broadly sympathetic to the government, but when I spoke to them privately afterwards, some expressed anger and frustration.

One elderly man said he had to keep growing poppies because he was poor and wheat simply did not give him enough income.

If they want us to stop growing poppies, he said, they need to give us much more help.

Another man complained that the government did not ask their views or listen to them.

“We need security,” he said. “Security is our main priority. It isn’t wheat or water we need most, it’s security. People here are dying every day in the fighting for no good reason.”

There is no doubt that the children now learning their lessons in school in Lashkar Gah represent a possible future for Helmand.

But it is also true that the military battle in Helmand is far from won.

And for development to be an effective weapon, it must be delivered quickly – while hope still lasts.


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November 12, 2008 at 5:34 am

Posted in Education

Afghan child mortality linked to uneducated mothers

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By Tan Ee Lyn
Sat Aug 30, 3:53 AM ET

HONG KONG (Reuters) – High child mortality rates in conservative Afghanistan are linked not just to war but to mothers being uneducated and having little or no say when their children need medical help, a study has found.

Child mortality rates in Afghanistan are among the highest in the world, and one out of every five Afghan children (or 191 out of every 1,000 live births) will not survive beyond age five.

The study of 2,474 children from 1,327 households in Kabul province found that diarrhoea (32.5 percent), acute respiratory infection (41 percent), emaciation (12.4 percent) and stuntedness (39.9 percent) were among the most common health problems, said the article published in the latest issue of BioMed Central Public Health.

“As in other countries, the primary caregivers of small children in Afghanistan are their mothers; however, in this country, mothers are subject to a number of restrictions in the decision-making process regarding child healthcare,” said the article published by a team of Afghan and Japanese researchers.

The researchers said they interviewed mothers of the children and found the problems correlated most closely with mothers not having any autonomy (79.1 percent) and education (71.7 percent).

Up to 18.3 percent of the mothers also delivered their first child before they were 16, which meant they were married when they were still children, the researchers wrote.

A shortage of basic material needs was also observed in 59.1 percent of the households.

The researchers defined a lack of maternal autonomy to mean mothers requiring permission from the head of the household to bring a child to the doctor, or if she required another person – usually a male relative – to accompany her to a clinic with the child.

Afghanistan is deeply conservative and women’s movements are still restricted in many parts of the country.

The researchers defined a lack of education as not having attended school for at least a year.

“The poor economic and educational status of these women, and their overall immaturity caused by a lack of learning opportunities may have resulted in difficulties in preventing illness in their children,” they wrote.

They called for change in Afghan society. Families needed to be educated and the government must play its part, they said.

“Culturally appropriate programmes with multifaceted approaches that provide families and communities with education and reproductive health services can help stop child marriage,” they wrote.

They said while an effective healthcare system was urgently required in Afghanistan, changes were also needed in the behavior of men toward women in their families and in the community.

“Current country-wide efforts to ensure that all women have access to formal education, the elimination of poverty and the improvement of sanitary conditions should be further enforced.”

(Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Valerie Lee)

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September 3, 2008 at 2:57 am

Posted in Education, Health

Thousands more Afghan school books torched: ministry

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KABUL, Aug 29, 2008 (AFP) – Unknown attackers torched about 8,300 new textbooks headed for schools in northeastern Afghanistan, the education ministry said Friday, days after 100,000 were destroyed in a similar incident.

The books were unloaded from two trucks on Thursday and then set alight, ministry of education spokesman Hamid Elmi told AFP. The drivers were unharmed, he said.

“More than 8,300 school books were torched when the trucks entered (Nuristan province),” he said. “The religious books were included in those torched by the opposition of the government.”

The term “opposition” refers to Taliban and other radical Islamic factions involved in a wide-ranging insurgency that targets troops as well as government institutions and development projects.

About 100,000 books were destroyed in a similar attack in the central province of Ghazni on Monday.

Insurgents have particularly targeted schools, one of the successes of development since the fall of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime which neglected the education sector and refused to allow girls into lessons.

Violence left 220 pupils and teachers dead in 2007, the education ministry said last month. The UN’s children’s organisation UNICEF said in April that there had been 236 attacks on schools in 2007.

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August 30, 2008 at 2:48 am

Posted in Education, Security

The dangers of teaching girls in Afghanistan

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* Janet Swinney

For Jamila Niyazi, simply going to her office is a death-defying act. Jamila is principal of Lashkar Gah girls high school in Helmand province Afghanistan, and oversees the education of 7,000 pupils. She has already received the dreaded “night letters” which threaten her with death. These have been followed by disturbing phone calls.

In Afghanistan, threats to teachers and students are not to be taken lightly. The country’s education ministry calculates that in the year ended March 2008, nearly 150 students and teachers were killed, and around 100 schools burned down. The situation is most perilous in southern and eastern areas, where the Taliban are resurgent. But just last year, gunmen riding a motorcycle fired on girls outside a school in Kabul, killing two and injuring six.

According to the United Nations, the country now has a record 5.7 million children in education, but only 35% of these are girls and the figure is not increasing. An estimated 1.2 million girls are missing out on schooling. In some provinces, girls’ enrolment may be as low as 1%. A third of state schools are reserved for boys, and there are not enough female teachers. In a country where the literacy rate for women aged 15–24 years is only 14%, compared with a rate of 51% for men in the same age group, this is a desperate situation.

“Educating a girl changes her destiny, as well as those of her future children,” says Ann Cotton, executive director of Camfed, “and it ensures that she that she can contribute to the economic life of her community.” Better educated women have healthier children, stand a better chance of surviving childbirth and can earn money for themselves and their families. In 2004 the World Bank found that a one-year increase in the schooling attainment of all adult females in a country is associated with an increase in GDP per capita of around US$700 per annum. It also found that education enables women to develop the skills and the confidence to become active in their communities and to participate in the political process.

All of this is a far cry from the reality of Afghan women. Most are not allowed to work outside the home. Traditionally, girls are married off in their early teens, and many die in childbirth. The infant mortality rate in 2006, though improving, was 135 per 1,000, which is the third worst in the world. An estimated 1,600 women die per 100,000 live births. In some parts of the country the rate is as high as 6,500 (whereas the average rate for other developing countries is 450 and, for developed, countries nine). The current food crisis is encouraging families to marry off their daughters as quickly as possible in exchange for a dowry. In May, a BBC reporter uncovered a case of a girl giving birth at the age of 10.

In many developing countries, poverty is the obstacle to girls’ participation in education. But many governments are working hard towards millennium targets by alleviating this barrier. They calculate that learning will pay dividends in the longer-term. For example, with the support of Unicef and the World Bank, many African nations are part of an initiative to engage the poor in learning by abolishing school fees, and are busy working through the resourcing and curriculum issues this raises. All kinds of imaginative approaches are being developed to place education within the reach of the poorest children, especially girls. The Indian government has undertaken to pay the costs for the first girl child in every poor family to attend primary school. Haryana state government provides free bicycles for girls who do not have a school within their own village. The ‘rider’ is that each girl must appear for the class VIII examination before she owns the bike in full. Village panchayats (councils) are offered financial incentives to achieve 100% female enrolment in school.

In Afghanistan however, girls face deeply entrenched cultural barriers to their participation in education, and a poor understanding of their human rights. International agencies have found that gender-based violence is endemic throughout society. Where adults are supportive of girls’ education they have fears for their safety if they venture outdoors.

Aid agencies continue their efforts to create safe environments in which girls and women can study, but the Taliban, now flexing their muscles again in large areas of the country, make it clear that anyone deemed to be colluding with “the infidel”, can expect the worst. “Collusion” in this case means being in receipt of income or support from a Western-backed government department or NGO, or benefiting from any of their services. This makes constructive help very difficult. How can the global community help girls and women who find themselves trapped inside this punitive situation? This is a question we have barely begun to ask, let alone to answer.

Ironically, women hold 25% of the seats in the country’s parliament – one of the highest percentages worldwide – guaranteed under the 2004 constitution. In the circumstances, it is hard to see how, beyond the short-term, women with appropriate knowledge and skills can arise from a female population with so few opportunities for learning.

The Karzai government is steadily losing its credibility with the population, and charges of corruption on a large scale abound, placing the Taliban, once again in a strong position. As Western military and economic resources are stretched, in diplomatic circles the talk is of negotiations with the opposition.

What form could such negotiations possibly take, and where will the rights of women and girls feature? The challenge is to help men of a fundamentalist Islamic persuasion see that the rights of women and girls are inextricably bound up with their own, and with the well-being of the nation as a whole. Otherwise, any millennium target will be a fond imagining. Does the West have negotiators with the necessary skills and insight for this task, and will any negotiating team actually include them?

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August 24, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Afghan university gets help from SDSU

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By Sherry Saavedra

August 9, 2008

COLLEGE AREA – One of the toughest decisions Mohibullah Israr ever made was leaving behind a wife and six children in Afghanistan to get an education in America.

But in the end, the choice was clear.

“It’s a golden opportunity to be here,” said Israr, 32. “We will learn here and then go back home and educate the people – the young generation. Then we will have a way to peace and stability.”

Israr is among seven faculty members from Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, attending a three-week Summer Institute at San Diego State University on how to teach English. Two faculty members, including Israr, have been in America for about a year earning master’s degrees at other universities.

The World Bank is giving SDSU $4 million to aid Nangarhar University, which involves implementing an English language program and redesigning the outdated engineering program to accelerate rebuilding efforts and create a better-educated work force.

“The engineering curriculum hasn’t been updated or changed in over 20 years, but the world has changed,” said Steve Spencer, SDSU’s project director for the Nangarhar partnership. “And as Afghanistan works with other nations to restore their country, English language is a critical skill. Those that can speak it have more opportunities – more jobs, more earning potential.”

In addition, SDSU will help establish programs at Nangarhar University’s International Learning Center, such as student and faculty exchanges, seminars and visiting lecturers from other institutions – programs that will help connect Nangarhar University with the rest of the world.

The impetus for this partnership came when two members of La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club traveled to Jalalabad to assess the region’s needs in 2002. The club has since built a coed school through private donations, established a sister-city relationship between San Diego and Jalalabad, and set up a computer lab and built the International Learning Center at Nangarhar, among other things. A club member encouraged SDSU to apply for World Bank funding to assist Nangarhar University.

Rafi Sayad, who is participating in the Summer Institute and who taught English at Nangarhar on the weekends for about a year, said the school essentially languished during the years of Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban control.

“It was just a disaster,” said Sayad, 37. “No professional teachers, no books, no libraries. There were students, but not that many. The university was just like a desert.”

Sayad, who also worked for the United Nations as a media monitor, interpreter, political assistant and human rights officer, has had his share of personal difficulties. He was arrested twice by the Taliban for having a beard that was too short. Sayad said his beard merely looks short because it is curly.

Sayad is earning a master of education degree in language, literacy and culture at the University of San Diego through scholarships from the school and the Rotary Foundation.

The Summer Institute began July 28 , but Sayad and Israr have attended classes longer. Each day, seven students take courses on how to teach English through SDSU’s Language Acquisition Resource Center, one of 15 U.S. Department of Education-funded centers in the nation. Eight engineering faculty members from Nangarhar University, who are delayed over visa difficulties, are expected to arrive at SDSU in the coming weeks.

The faculty members plan to attend another Summer Institute next year.

Spencer said partnerships such as this one are the key to achieving peace, stability and security in Afghanistan.

“This is one of the essential ways to fight the war in Afghanistan,” Spencer said of the partnership. “The bottom line is we can’t win the war by military efforts alone.”

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August 10, 2008 at 2:48 am

Posted in Education

Afghanistan: Schools torched, students killed as insurgents attack ‘Soft Targets’

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By Farangis Najibullah RFE/RL

The Afghan Education Ministry says the country began the school year with a record number of children attending school — nearly 6.5 million, including girls, enrolled in over 9,000 schools.

But four months later, tens of thousands of students were out of school again as Afghan insurgents increased their attacks on schools — with at least 72 students and teachers being killed since school began on March 23.

During that same period, 62 schools were burned down and another 640 schools were closed because of a lack of security. That’s already more closed schools than all of last year, when 635 schools were closed or burned down.

Afghan Deputy Education Minister Mohammad Siddiq Patman tells RFE/RL that many schools cannot operate in Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Paktika, Zabul, and other provinces due to insecurity.

Patman says that in addition to the physical attacks on students, teachers, and schools, the Taliban has also staged a “psychological war against education.”

“They distribute threatening leaflets to residents warning them not to send their children to school or face the consequences,” he says.

Appeal For Local Support

The primary school system, the renewal of which is widely considered one of Afghanistan’s major success stories since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has become an easy target for those who want to weaken the central government in Kabul.

“Schools, obviously, don’t have armed forces to guard them,” says Patman. He says the Education Ministry has decided to launch a campaign among local people to encourage them to help protect schools from the insurgents.

“We have begun a wide [campaign] to raise people’s awareness,” Patman says. “People’s responsiveness has increased in comparison to previous years and they have started to protect their schools. We have set up councils and we’ve succeeded in reopening schools in some areas.”

In villages, education officials work closely with influential local leaders — including tribal elders and mullahs — to gain more public support for schools.

Patman says that to ensure the safety of schools, councils have also tried to persuade “local Taliban” to avoid attacking schools, students, and teachers.

They spread a message among the insurgents and villagers that schools are free of any kind of ideology and nonpolitical.

Eager For Education

In many areas, local people need little or no encouragement to send their children to school. Girls were deprived of education under Taliban rule when only boys were allowed to attend religious schools.

The eagerness for education has been so great in many Afghan areas that students do not even mind having classes in tents or even under a tree.

Girls now make up at least 35 percent of the students.

Masooma, a 13-year-old girl from the village of Chanjeer in the volatile Helmand Province, says she was thrilled when her parents sent her to a local school three years ago. However, the school was later closed after threats were made by insurgents.

Like many children her age, Masooma finds it difficult to understand why her school is not able to operate.

“Since last year, when I was attending the third grade, our school has been closed. We hope it will reopen soon,” she says. “I’m very upset that our school is closed. We ask, ‘Why are schools in other areas open but in our area they are locked?’ We want our schools to be reopened.”

In the meantime, the Education Ministry is pressing ahead with its ambitious plan to build 30 new schools in each of the country’s three dozen provinces.

Construction has already started in many areas, including in the northern Panjshir Province, where local authorities say they have been promised $1.6 million to build new schools for 12,000 children.

The Education Ministry says it will begin similar projects in the more violent areas in the south of the country when the security situation there will allow it.

Until then, thousands of eager girls like Masooma will have to wait for their chance to learn.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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August 8, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Education, Security

Afghan teachers face poverty

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Chris Sands
The National (UAE)

June 23, 2008

KABUL // Low salaries are forcing many of Afghanistan’s teachers to take on
second jobs so they can feed their families.

Despite promises that their wages would be increased, schoolteachers in Kabul
said there have been few improvements since the US-led invasion in 2001.

“When the Taliban regime was destroyed, we were optimistic that the new
government would help us, but they have done nothing,” said Aziza Khalil, a
chemistry teacher.

Against the backdrop of growing insecurity, education is commonly regarded as
being one of Afghanistan’s most tangible success stories.

Girls were barred from going to school under the Taliban, a fact often used
as a marker for progress the country has since made.

During a visit to Afghanistan this month, Laura Bush, the wife of the US
president, was quick to highlight the issue.

“There’s a huge increase in the number of kids in school,” she told
reporters. “There are almost six million kids in school now compared to 2001
when there were maybe a million, but no girls.”

However, the reality is that progress has been slower than many expected and
some Afghans fear the education system is in danger of regressing.

Ms Khalil started teaching during the communist era, a period she remembers
as perhaps the best time for her and her colleagues.

When the Taliban seized power, she continued to receive her salary for two
years, even though she was not allowed to work at Zarghona High School. Although
she has been welcomed back, she has had to take on another job, tutoring
students after school, to make ends meet.

“We have five people in our family and that’s small for Afghanistan. But on
the salary I get I cannot even afford to buy them tea and bread,” Ms Khalil

Most teachers at state schools earn between US$50 to $100 (Dh183 to Dh367) a
month. Those interviewed said their income had barely changed since the Taliban
regime was overthrown and, with basic living expenses increasing, they were
struggling to survive.

“The problem is with the people in high positions. They steal the money given
to the ministry of education and build themselves a house, a beautiful castle,”
Ms Khalil said.

Last month, teachers around the country went on strike to demand a pay rise.
The protest lasted just two days at Zarghona, but elsewhere the demonstrations
were longer and the police responded by arresting some school principals.

Nazifa Ghiasi, a colleague of Ms Khalil’s, also has a second job, earning
more as a tailor than she does from helping girls learn Pashto. In total, she
works an average of 14 to 15 hours a day. “I have five children and the money
from teaching is not enough for me,” she said.

The government has pledged to increase salaries as part of an overall scheme
to raise wages in the public sector, but the plan is not due to be implemented
for at least another three years.

Mohammed Suleman Kakar, a senior adviser at the ministry of education,
acknowledged Afghanistan’s schools were in a “crisis situation”, but warned it
could take another five years to move beyond that.

“When you have such a large number of students enrolled in schools, you have
to provide the supplies, including qualified teachers, textbooks, buildings,
good administration and management,” he said. “Resources have always been
limited and strategic planning for the organisation of all this was lacking.”

Mr Kakar said the ministry of education receives just 30 per cent of the
money it needs annually.

Teachers across the city said classroom supplies rely on donations from
wealthy parents, and that in one school regular electricity was only possible
because a former pupil is the nephew of an influential warlord.

Zarghona also has to share its facilities with another school, a situation
found throughout Kabul.

At Rukhshana High School, some lessons are held in the corridors as all the
classrooms are full.

“This is all because of [Hamid] Karzai,” one female teacher at the school
said, blaming the Afghan president.

Her colleague, however, disagreed. “This is all because of the Americans.
They do not want to improve education in Afghanistan.”

Mr Kakar said poor governance following the US-led invasion caused many of
the problems that exist today.

He said only 35 per cent of schools have buildings and 80 per cent of
teachers have not completed high school education.

Security is also a big problem in seven provinces, including Kandahar,
Helmand, Zabul and Badghis.

“Schools are attacked, schools are blown up, schools are burnt, teachers are
killed, students are killed, students and teachers are threatened,” he said.

He said in the short-term, teachers who register with the government, pass a
competency test and open a bank account will receive relatively substantial pay

But the ministry hopes that a scheme due to be implemented in stages over the
next three to four years will eventually leave all of its teachers with a
minimum wage of about $120 a month. The maximum will be about $500 or $600.

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June 25, 2008 at 4:21 am

Posted in Education