The education system has never been a focus of attention in Afghanistan. During the Taliban years, however, it reached new lows, when girls were forbidden to even attend school. The international community has made it a priority to get children back to school in Afghanistan, where the new school year begins tomorrow.
Kabul, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Acquiring weapons seems to have been a greater priority than acquiring an education for all of the governments in power in Kabul over the last quarter-century. The vast majority of young Afghans today have had no formal schooling whatsoever.
Things only got worse during the six years of Taliban rule. The Taliban regime seemed to scorn the study of anything but the Koran. Education for women was strictly forbidden. Illiteracy is now rife in the country, with an estimated 60 percent of women not knowing how to read or write.
Since the fall of the Taliban late last year, the United Nations and various aid agencies have made education a priority. They are targeting children between the ages of 7 and 14. The United Nation's Children's Fund, or UNICEF, is taking the lead in this effort.
Tomorrow is the beginning of the new school year for Afghan pupils, and in the days following, UNICEF will learn just how successful its attempts to persuade parents to send their children back to school have been. Edward Carwardine is a UNICEF spokesman in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
"In Afghanistan, the situation has not been good in terms of education for many years. Clearly, the last six years have had a very detrimental effect on access to education, above all for girls under the restrictions placed by the Taliban. But even before those years, there have been 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan, and this has had a very negative effect on access to education. And we estimate that there are only about 32 percent of boys of primary-school age attending school and as low as eight percent of girls attending education."
Carwardine said nobody knows how many teachers remain in the country. He said many fled Afghanistan, while others died during the various conflicts. He said UNICEF has been trying to contact as many teachers as possible to get them back to work. He said around 2,000 of Afghanistan's 5,000 schools have been destroyed and that those that survive are desperately short of essential teaching supplies.
"Well, at the moment, we are told there are approximately 50,000 teachers officially registered to teach across Afghanistan. Now, with the start of the new school term on the 23rd of March, how many of those teachers will actually come back to school, we really don't know at this stage, and we probably won't know for a number of weeks to come. In terms of physical materials, the teachers I've been speaking to over the last couple of weeks have been telling us they've really survived on very little over the last few years. And one of the main focuses of UNICEF's involvement in supporting the drive for education is actually beginning to provide the basic items that children and teachers need to start working again in the classrooms. So we're talking about stationery kits and pens and paper and notebooks for the children. For the teachers, chalk and chalkboards, and attendance registers. Those basic items are sufficient to get them up and running again."
He said the Afghan interim government is trying to provide some payment to teachers, and that the UN is setting up a trust fund to generate money for wages. The World Food Program is giving teachers coupons they can trade for food as a partial payment of wages.
Carwardine said UNICEF has mounted its biggest operation ever to supply books and teaching materials to Afghan schools. Most of the books are printed in Pakistan, while others have been donated by Turkey and Iran.
"We've also been shipping in what we call 'schools in a box,' which are ready-made school kits for up to 80 children and teachers, which come from our international supply center in Copenhagen. Again it's the basic materials -- notebooks, pens, paper, trigonometry materials, chalkboards, paint -- which can actually be painted into the inside lid of these crates, so you actually have a ready-made chalkboard. And we obviously have chalk. We have slates. We have school bags. Pretty much everything a child needs to [get] back into learning again."
Carwardine said one of the most difficult tasks has been to let Afghans, especially in remote areas, know that the schools are reopening and that girls are free to attend.
"We have been using every network possible and every method of communication to get across a number of basic messages. First of all, that the schools reopen officially again on March 23rd. Secondly, that all children can go back to school -- girls as well as boys. That's a very strong message. And amongst the methods of communication, we have been using the radio service here in Afghanistan. We've been producing literally thousands of fliers and banners and posters, which are appearing in communities all over the country. Here in Kabul, we have vehicles with loud hailers (loudspeakers), which are driving through the streets informing people of the back-to-school campaign."
Carwardine said one of the biggest breakthroughs came when an influential council of imams, or Islamic clerics, in Kabul said that education for women does not contradict Islamic tenets.
UNICEF hopes that almost two million Afghan pupils will attend school in the first month and that there will be two million more within two months. He said UNICEF is concentrating first on getting the youngest children to school, but that there are plans to help secondary schools in the future.
"There will be a second and third phase of the supply campaign, which will cover those older children. We also need to take into account that there are some girls who are coming back into school now who are actually in their early 20s who missed out on that last year of schooling before the Taliban restricted their access. And they just want to finish that last year of education, and they have particular needs that we need to address. But we have to start somewhere. We decided to focus on the younger age group, and obviously, we will look at new needs as they arise."
One of the schools due to reopen tomorrow is the Zarghona School for Girls in Kabul. The school's administrator is Yaha Farzi, who had to close her school during the years of Taliban rule. She is a formidable character who, during Taliban rule, ran a secret school for girls in a private home, risking imprisonment or execution if she had been caught.
Farzi, a cheerful woman who chooses not to wear a burqa, explained that she found her school almost empty when she returned to it following the ouster of the Taliban.
"We didn't have any textbooks, but during courses that we held during winter, UNICEF helped by providing some equipment and supplies and the International Security Assistance Force has helped by providing equipment and stationery, especially for the first-, second- and third-grade classes."
She said salaries for teachers are a big problem, since the interim government has little money with which to pay teachers, or any other government employees, for that matter.
"The United Nations has assisted the interim government to provide some remuneration and money for the teachers. But we have only received some pay for the last two months of our work, and some food coupons have been distributed."
But she says there is a sense of the worst being over. She said she feels that if children receive an education there is a real chance for Afghanistan to break out of the vicious cycle of conflict that has gripped it for so long.
"We do feel very happy because, after the dark days of the Taliban government, the schools are going to reopen and the teachers alongside some other staff here have prepared the ground for the students here. And we hope that our female students will be educated, and they will work alongside their brothers here in Afghanistan to rebuild the country."
The head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, and other dignitaries -- including the director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy -- will officially declare the school year open tomorrow at a ceremony at a Kabul school run by a female teacher.