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7224Afghan girls risk their lives to go to secret school

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  • Zafar Khan
    Oct 2, 2006
      Afghan 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
      The Observer


      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