7224Afghan girls risk their lives to go to secret school
- Oct 2, 2006Afghan girls risk their lives to go to secret school
Arson, grenade attacks and Taliban threats have driven
200,000 children out of the classroom
Pamela Constable in Mollai, Afghanistan
Sunday October 1, 2006
In a small, sunlit room last week, 20 little girls
seated on rush mats sketched a flower drawn on the
blackboard. In a darker, interior room, 15 older girls
recited passages from the Koran. Upstairs was a class
of teenage girls, hidden from view.
The location of the mud-walled home school is a close
secret. The students include five girls who attended
another home school that was burnt down three months
ago. The very existence of these classes is a
challenge to the insurgents who have attacked dozens
of schools across Afghanistan in the past year,
especially those teaching girls. 'We are scared. All
the home schools are scared. If I even hear a dog
bark, I don't open the gate. I go up on the roof to
see who is there,' said Mohammed Sulieman, 49, who
teaches in several villages in the Sheikhabad district
of Wardak province.
Children's education was once touted as a success in
this new democracy. Within two years of the 2001
overthrow of the Taliban, who banned girls' education,
officials boasted that 5.1 million children of both
sexes were enrolled in state schools, including
hundreds of village tent-schools erected by Unicef.
Now that positive tide has come to a halt in several
provinces where Taliban insurgents are battling Nato
troops, and has slowed dramatically in many other
regions. President Hamid Karzai said last week that
some 200,000 Afghan children had been forced out of
school this year by threats and violence. According to
Unicef, 106 attacks or threats against schools
occurred from January to August. They included one
missile attack, 11 explosions, 50 arson attacks and 37
threats. In the four southern provinces under serious
assault by Taliban forces, nearly half of the 748
schools have closed. Bernt Aasen, of Unicef, has
warned that the attacks 'undermine the very fabric of
the future of Afghan society'.
In the southern province of Kandahar, all schools are
closed in five districts. Attackers have hurled
grenades into classrooms and threatened to throw acid
on girl pupils. In Helmand province, a headteacher was
beheaded, another teacher killed by gunmen on
motorbikes, and six schools burnt down. Three
districts have closed all schools.
In the 1990s, civil conflict and religious repression
hampered education. Many teachers fled the country.
Families who could afford to do so educated their
children abroad. In rural areas education became
virtually inaccessible, especially for girls, and in
some places female literacy fell to less than 1 per
cent. State education remains controversial for girls,
especially once they reach puberty and custom forbids
them to mix with boys. In northern provinces, where
the Taliban threat is minimal and customs more
moderate, many communities have welcomed foreign
offers to build schools for girls. One such community
is in Parwan, a lush but impoverished province of
rushing streams and terraced fields. This summer the
US Army built an eight-room school for 300 girls in
Mollai village, the first in the area. In one class
every child is the first girl in her family to attend
'There are still a few parents who don't want their
daughters to come, but we keep talking to them,' said
the teacher, Mahmad Agul, 25. 'We lack everything here
- paved roads, electrical power, deep wells, clinics.
But this school was our highest priority.'
Gul Khanum, 11, said that her parents were illiterate
farmers, but she hoped to become a doctor. Nazia, 10,
stood to recite a poem, speaking nervously but without
a hitch. Afterwards, she said she had learnt to read
at home but had not attended school before: 'Before,
we were just sitting in the dust. Now we have desks
and chairs and a roof.'
In the remote northwest provinces, Save the Children
has been working with officials to promote schooling
for girls. 'Every kid in Afghanistan has been affected
by conflict, but you still have to try and educate
them. It can't just stop,' said Leslie Wilson of Save
the Children. In Sar-e Pol province, she said, there
are three times more girls in school than three years
ago: 'It's a drop in the bucket, but it's progress.'
Where schools are too distant or too dangerous to
attend, hundreds of communities set up home schools.
With the revival of the Taliban threat, they are
becoming an important alternative. In the central
province of Wardak, the main road was crowded last
week with boys on bicycles travelling to high school.
But not even they are safe from attack. In one
village, the only boys' school was bombed six months
ago and some students have stopped attending.
'It happened at three in the morning,' said Syed
Hassan, 46, a maths teacher. 'The windows were all
shattered and the pages of books scattered on the
ground, even our Korans. If our people do not get
educated, it will be a disaster for our country.'
Sulieman, headmaster of a boys' high school, showed
off several home schools where girls were studying art
and maths. In one village, a three-room home school
was crammed with students, but another had just closed
after an arson attack. Sulieman said the arson was not
necessarily by rebels - there are rivalries for
contracts to run home schools and 'personal enmities'
lead to violence.
'Once I was walking late in my village when three
Taliban warned me to stop educating girls,' he said.
'I told them the Koran says girls should be educated
as well as boys, and that my school was teaching young
girls to memorise the Koran and pray five times a