Afghanistan: Education in a War Zone
By Maysam Najafizada
This article was originally published on Transitions Online, with support from the Education Support Program.
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan—Seven-year-old Maryam’s mother found a black stain on her shirt one day after school. Though the little girl initially denied that anything had happened to her, she eventually explained that, when she was caught outside after a 10-minute recess, the headmaster hit her with his strap as she was running back to class, leaving the mark on her shoulder.
Corporal punishment is still the norm in many Afghan schools, but that is only one of the many obstacles facing education reform in war-torn Afghanistan, where the Taleban insurgency presents an ongoing threat to the implementation and sustainability of the new government’s policies. The government under President Hamid Karzai has made significant progress in the field of education, building new schools and launching teacher-training initiatives. Naming this academic year the “Year of Education Capacity Building,” the education ministry has set several ambitious goals, including the establishment of 1,750 new primary schools, as well as renovations for 962 primary and 475 secondary schools and the development of special education schools for disabled children. It also aims to improve the quality of Afghan education by employing around 1,500 school supervisors and establishing a network of school councils that will serve as a conduit for reforms, costing more than 15.2 million USD.
But the persistence of traditional methods for teaching and maintaining discipline in the classroom, teacher shortages and low salaries, and obsolete and ideologically charged curricula, as well as daily physical threats to the safety of Afghan teachers and students, all undermine public enthusiasm for the state’s nascent reforms.
Sticks and Straps
In some Afghan schools, students are frequently hit with sticks and straps if they disobey, disagree with, or ask tough questions of their teachers. “It’s normal. We are used to it. Not only the headmasters but many other teachers use sticks and straps in order to lead students to classes or line them up to listen to the headmaster’s speeches,” says 17-year-old Ahmad Reshad, who attends a prestigious high school in the burgeoning city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
Some would argue that Maryam, the little girl who was hit by her teacher, is lucky to suffer the strap over the fate of many other female children her age, who are being sold by their impoverished parents, exchanged as settlements in blood feuds between warring tribes and families, or married off at an extremely young age according to tradition.
These practices are behind the alarming statistic that only 13 percent of Afghan girls complete primary school compared to 32 percent of boys, according to the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative in Afghanistan. The disparity is even worse in terms of basic literacy. Only 18 percent of young women aged 15 to 24 are literate, compared to 50 percent of young men in the same age bracket. The general insecurity of wartime Afghanistan, poverty, and child marriage all account for serious discrepancies in female educational opportunities, according to a report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Since the Taleban regime was toppled in late 2001, as many as 6 million boys and girls have enrolled in Afghan schools. However, the supply of students has far exceeded the pool of qualified teachers, and shortages remain a problem even in big cities like the capital of Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat in the west, and Nangarhar in the east. Afghan teachers are stretched well beyond their capacity.
“Most of our teachers are not versed in modern teaching methods,” laments Ghulam Dastager, a professor in Balkh University’s Pedagogy Faculty. “They only have knowledge about a subject, not the knowledge of how to transfer it.”
That is hardly surprising since many educators are scarcely qualified as professional teachers. According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Education, 80 percent of the country’s 165,000 teachers have achieved only the equivalent of a high school education or did not complete their post-secondary studies.
But education officials are confident this situation will soon improve. “Teachers’ capacity building is the chief target of the education ministry this year,” says Deputy Education Minister Mohammad Sediq Patman. He says that the ministry has launched short-term teacher training seminars for thousands of teachers across the country: “[That program] continues and our training teams are out in the field.”
One of the major contributing factors behind teachers’ low capacity and morale are their meager salaries, which have not been increased over the last six years.
Fariba, a 35-year-old teacher in Kabul, says, “We can’t relax because we don’t have enough money to support our families. How can I manage my family with $50 a month? Will it pay for the rent, food, gas, water, or clothes? It’s not enough for any of them.”
Teachers’ basic monthly salaries have been stable at the equivalent of $35 since the current government took over in 2002. Earlier this year, parliament approved a new budget for the education ministry that called for teachers’ salaries to be raised to $60 per month. But that hardly provides for a decent standard of living. To give a practical example, the price of a 200-gram loaf of bread is set at an average of $1 by the various municipalities, yet it may be sold at a much higher price in reality. Even with a $60 salary, the most educators can afford is two loaves a day, far from enough to feed both themselves and their families. Many end up taking second jobs in order to make ends meet, or take bribes from their students for higher grades.
For many years, officials promised teachers that they would be provided with plots of land to build their own homes, but a series of education ministers have failed to deliver on that pledge.
Khalilollah Hushman, a 42-year-old teacher at Habibia High School in Kabul, recently participated in a teachers’ strike over the issue of salary increases and plots of land. “We have the right to strike for a living,” he said angrily. “I need shelter for my sons. I need bread for them. The government has paid the least attention to teachers, while we do the most important task in society.”
Since the beginning of the Civil War in 1978, school curricula have changed many times under various governing parties. Curricula under the Taleban (and the earlier Mujahideen) were loaded with extremist Islamic teachings. Even before that, the curriculum was politicized by the communist regime in the 1980s.
The new Afghan government assembled a team of Afghan and international experts to design a new curriculum for primary schools last year. Plans are also underway to create a two-year curriculum at the preschool level.
“It is a big achievement that the curriculum of our primary schools is being overhauled and our children will be trained well and fairly with the new books,” said the ex-Minister of Education Mohammad Hanif Atmar at a ministry press conference when he announced the newly printed books in June 2008.
However, there remains no standard curriculum for Afghanistan’s secondary schools. The ministry plans to create one by 2010.
High school textbooks remain woefully inadequate in number and in content. “The books are full of spelling and grammar mistakes and lots of scientific errors in chemistry, biology, and physics,” said 18-year-old Ahmad Elias of Bakhter High School in Mazar-e- Sharif.
Schools Without Buildings
“Students who have the opportunity to think about the problems in their textbooks are fortunate,” says Professor Dastager at the Balkh Pedagogy Faculty. “They sit on chairs, with desks in front of them and a blackboard or whiteboard in their classroom, with teachers instructing them. We have many students in Afghanistan who don’t have the opportunity to think about the mistakes inside their books. They only dream of a building for their school, a chair to sit on, and a desk to write on.”
Lack of education infrastructure is a major problem. Hundreds of students are being educated in UNICEF-funded plastic shelters, both in the summer heat and the cold of winter.
Around 4,500 schools are being built according to a recent government report; however, at present only 40 percent of schools currently operate in permanent buildings. The rest hold classes in the UNICEF shelters or are so-called desert schools with students and teachers gathering in the desert near a village. Among those with buildings, only 70 percent are equipped with chairs for their students, while the rest have to sit on the ground during their lessons.
Some children have to travel great distances to receive a basic education. “I walk 45 minutes to school everyday. It is very far for my little sister to go,” says 15-year-old Zainab, who lives in the village of Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan Province.
A new infrastructure development program intends to build schools in between many adjacent villages so that students have less of a commute. “In some places, in order to cover a larger area with educational services, we had to build a school in-between many villages. It may be outside the villages, but all the villages are close enough to send their children,” explains Deputy Education Minister Patman.
In addition to accessibility issues, rural schools present another critical concern. “These schools outside the villages can easily become a target for insurgents,” explains Professor Dastager.
Afghanistan’s political insecurity has threatened all fields of development and the education sector is no exception. The Taleban regularly publish “night letters”, unsigned leaflets secretly distributed overnight in the southern and eastern provinces, demanding that parents stop sending their children to government-run schools. They have also targeted teachers who have violated their warnings to stop teaching in these schools and, in the far remote villages of the south, have personally appeared in schools, warning that they would kill students that continued to attend.
According to the education ministry, around 150 students and teachers have been killed so far in military attacks by insurgents. Around 100 schools have been set on fire all over the country, including in the relatively secure provinces in the north.
In the southern province of Helmand, 169 of its 227 schools were shut down as a result of direct or indirect security threats by the Taleban this year. In addition, a government report stated that security threats led to the closure of 600 schools across the southern provinces by late September, depriving 300,000 students of primary and secondary education.
Recently, the Taleban set fire to newly printed textbooks that were being transported to the southern and western provinces. On 25 August 2008, they attacked a convoy of books on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, burning almost 100,000 books that had been produced with the support of international donations.
Maysam Najafizada is an Afghan journalist who writes for several international news agencies, including BBC Monitoring, and Der Spiegel, as well as local and national newspapers in Afghanistan.