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Afghanistan: Schools Coping With Large Numbers Of Students, Poor Facilities

  • Farangis Najibullah

More than 3 million Afghan children returned to school last year and, according to officials, that number has nearly doubled during the current school year, which began a few weeks ago. The large number of students means the Afghan Ministry of Education is struggling with a shortage of textbooks, desks, and classrooms, as well as a lack of qualified teachers.

Prague, 17 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Afghan Ministry of Education is facing a tough challenge. Millions of children are eager to resume their education, but there are not enough school buildings or teaching facilities in the country. Afghanistan once had more than 6,000 schools, but almost all of them were damaged or destroyed during 23 years of fighting.

Rebuilding schools and educating children is a top priority for the country's new government. More than 500 schools have been rebuilt during the past year. Reconstruction and renovations are under way in many others. International aid agencies are providing school supplies.

Mohammad Moein Marastiyal, Afghanistan's deputy minister of education, told RFE/RL that the country's education system had to start from scratch. "Last year, we prepared textbooks for 2 million students. This year, we are printing 5.8 million textbooks," he said. "Recently, we distributed some 2 million textbooks to schools around the capital, Kabul."

A shortage of textbooks is only the tip of the iceberg. Abdul Samad and Mohammad Tamim, students from the Vazirobod School in Kabul, complain they don't have proper supplies or facilities. "We don't have pencils," Abdul Samad said. "We don't have notebooks. And we sit on the floor. The Education Ministry should help us. What would happen to the future of the country if the younger generation does not get an education?" Mohammad Tamim added: "We don't have chairs at school. We have no textbooks. We have few teachers."

Hoji Yosin, the deputy headmaster, said the Vazirobod School does not even have a proper building. "Our school does not have its own building. The Agricultural Ministry gave us one of its buildings, which has no doors. The building has only seven rooms. It is too small for our 3,500 students. We are facing so many difficulties," he told RFE/RL.

The deputy education minister said he hopes that all pupils will at least have enough desks and chairs during the current school year. "Last year, we solved this problem [the shortage of desks] to some extent. Last year, we bought some 1.5 million desks and distributed them to schools throughout the country. Recently, we purchased 500,000 more desks for further distribution. These 2 million desks will be enough for all of the 5.8 million pupils who attend schools this year," Marastiyal said.

Afghan teachers also complain about poor wages. As in many countries, teaching has always been a respectable, but low-paying, job in Afghanistan. Wahid Hadafmand, a teacher at the Amoni high school in Kabul, said that he can hardly make ends meet with his salary of $35 to $40 a month. "A senior teacher gets about 1,800 to 2,000 afghanis a month, which is far below all standards. For this money, you cannot even buy enough food," he said. "I am not exaggerating. Many teachers, especially in Kabul and other cities, don't have a place to live. They cannot afford to rent a property."

The Education Ministry says it does not have enough money to give teachers a proper raise. However, according to Deputy Minister Marastiyal, employees of the country's education system will receive certain privileges. "The Education Ministry tries to increase teachers' salaries," he said. "Besides, we are considering some privileges for teachers and their families. For instance, the special service in our ministry provides food products for teachers with a 20 to 30 percent price discount. Teachers and their families will eventually get free medical services in state-run medical institutions."

The ministry has established the Supreme Education Council to create a new education program in accordance with European standards. The new program encourages foreign-language training at schools. However, due to a lack of qualified teachers, the idea has yet to materialize. Only 20 schools in Kabul and other major cities have started the new experiment.

After more than two decades of war, at least one generation of young Afghans was left uneducated. Under the ousted Taliban administration, girls were banned from schools, while the education programs for boys focused mostly on religion.

Reliable statistics about the literacy rate in Afghanistan do not exist, but local experts say that more than 85 percent of the population has never been to school. There is only a small chance they will ever receive a proper education. Few special courses exist for older people who missed the opportunity to complete their secondary education due to war or other barriers.

Today, girls and boys of all ages are being encouraged to return to school, but according to local teachers, girls in their late teens are finding it difficult to attend lessons with 10- to 12-year-olds.

During his annual address, Hamid Karzai, the chairman of the Transitional Authority, told the nation that some 12,000 young people are attending special courses to make up for lost time. However, the number of illiterate people among the younger generation is believed to number in the millions.

Despite these shortcomings, Afghan education authorities say they are optimistic they will be able to eliminate illiteracy among the youngest generation.

During the last school year, they note, there were not enough school buildings and lessons took place under trees or in tents. However, the number of students who came back to school was 1 million more than the government had predicted.

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