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Afghanistan: Most Children Lack Schooling

Prague, 6 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- UN officials say that education for children in Afghanistan has all but stopped in the wake of decades of violence, which has reduced the economy to a subsistence level.

Carol Bellamy, director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said in a statement released last week that two out of three boys in Afghanistan do not attend primary school. The high dropout rate is due to boys leaving school to help their parents in Afghanistan's almost entirely agriculture-based economy.

At the same time, nine out of 10 girls are receiving no formal education. Bellamy said that girls always have had a low education rate compared to boys in Afghanistan. But she said the gap has been exacerbated and institutionalized by the Taliban militia, which bans girls from attending schools and female teachers from working. The fundamentalist Islamist Taliban now controls some 90 percent of the country.

The UNICEF director added that less than half the students who enroll in primary schools reach fifth grade, a fact likely to worsen the country's high illiteracy rate. Only 47 percent of adult men in Afghanistan can read and just 15 percent of women.

UN officials say that international efforts to aid in educating Afghan children have been stymied by disputes with the ruling Taliban.

The UN withdrew all foreign personnel from Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan shortly after a UN military observer was killed in Kabul in August in apparent retaliation for a U.S. missile attack on alleged terrorist camps in the country. The UN has conditioned the return of the foreign experts on the militia providing guarantees for their safety.

Patrick McCormick, a UNICEF spokesman in Geneva, says the withdrawal of the relief workers is just the latest setback in his agency's difficult relationship with the Taliban.

He says that since the Taliban took power, the militia has ignored treaties signed by previous Afghan governments regarding children's rights and the elimination of discrimination against women. That has made it impossible for UNICEF to continue supporting the formal education system in Taliban-controlled areas, where women are completely excluded from classrooms.

"One of the major treaties or conventions that they have ignored is the Convention on the Rights of the Child giving the right to education for both girls and boys ... (so) in 1995 we stopped providing educational materials and teacher training to formal schools in Taliban-held areas and we haven't started again," McCormick said. "It has been impossible to continue our education programs."

But UNICEF has maintained support for community-based education programs benefiting both girls and boys in Taliban-controlled areas. It also has continued to work with education authorities in non-Taliban-held areas.

Since cutting off support for the Taliban-controlled formal education system, the UN has been in constant negotiation with the militia on the issue of education for women. Those talks led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the world organization and the Taliban last May. The memorandum stated that "men and women shall have the right to education." But McCormick says the Taliban signed the memorandum only as a bargaining tool and has never put it into practice.

"The UN's, as well as UNICEF's, help in Afghanistan is useful for (the Taliban). We provide not just education but health assistance (and) lots of (non governmental organizations) are there as well repairing hospitals, demining, helping in health clinics, a whole array of things (the Taliban) are not capable of doing. So it may be that they felt they had to give a little to make sure that we stayed because at one point, you know, we have threatened to leave ... so they are playing a game, it is as simple as that, and they are not living up to their side of the bargain."

Meanwhile, other relief organizations say that hospitals in Afghanistan have run out of medicines and other essential supplies, while inflation has driven up the price of food. According to UNICEF, more than a quarter of Afghan children die before the age of five.