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Education Policy Today Will Determine What Afghanistan Is In 2020

A policeman frisks a man as he enters a polling station in a high school in Kandahar Province on August 19.
Afghans went to the polls earlier this month to elect a new president and provincial councils. Amid all the political news, little attention was paid to one startling fact. Election day saw at least 26 armed attacks on polling stations located in schools across the country.

The Education Ministry has downplayed the attacks, even arrogantly declaring it is prepared to make even "more and bigger" sacrifices in order to support democracy.

The statement hints at a larger problem in Afghanistan. Over the past three decades, schools, students, and the entire education sector have been widely and systematically abused by the ruling regimes for their own political and strategic ends.

This has not only been a cruel disservice to young people and educators, but it has provoked deep anti-education sentiments, particularly in rural communities.

With the recent elections and the ministry's statement, the country now faces a serious risk of backsliding in the progress that has been made in the post-Taliban period.

Several nongovernmental organizations, including the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), have warned the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Education Ministry about the risks of involving schools in the election process.

Such warnings fell on deaf ears and, in the end, more than 2,700 polling stations were set up in schools.

Insurgents struck at least 26 of them with rockets, missiles, and other arms on election day, according to the Education Ministry.

These alarming figures will have security and public-perception implications for all the country's schools for a long time to come.

‘Neutral Places of Learning’

The recent incidents come against a background of steadily increasing attacks on education facilities over the past few years.

UNICEF reports that there were 236 violent incidents in schools in 2007, including armed attacks, arson, and explosions. In 2008, 290 such incidents resulted in 92 deaths and 170 injuries. In the first half of this year, UNICEF recorded 171 incidents, in which 60 students and teachers were killed and 204 wounded.

Simply denouncing such attacks through government press releases is useless. The insurgents will not stop attacking schools just because the government condemns such attacks.

But improving security at schools and, most importantly, enhancing community support for them can be done, if the government and its international partners adopt innovative policies to insulate schools and students from political exploitation of all sorts.

In a nutshell, schools must be treated as apolitical, civilian structures that exclusively serve the interests of the communities where they are located.

Of course, this does not mean that progress on educating girls and improving the curriculum needs to be sacrificed to appease extremists.

The Education Ministry and the NGO community can work with local councils, imams, tribal elders, and other local leaders to build up support for equal access to quality education for all Afghan children.

This is not to say that it won’t be necessary to make compromises. Realistically, the ministry and donors will have to accept the necessity of establishing segregated learning environments for girls where only female teachers and staff would interact with female students.

Regrettably, such facilities will likely have to enforce compliance with local traditions regarding the use of the hijab by female students and staff

At the same time, the common practice of students flag-waving and singing to greet every visiting government and/or international delegation must be stopped.

Schools must stop posting portraits of President Hamid Karzai and other government officials or painting donor logos or flags on school building. Such practices are extremely provocative and counterproductive.

The Afghan government and international security forces must stop the practice of distributing stationary items and school supplies. Schools must be – and be seen to be – neutral places of learning, rather than showplaces of government policy successes.

‘Unprecedented’ But ‘Uneven’ Progress

It cannot be denied that Afghanistan has made unprecedented progress in education since 2002, inspiring hopes for a rapid reduction in the country’s appalling illiteracy rates.

According to the UNESCO, Afghanistan’s literacy figures are among the worst in Asia –50 percent for men and just 18 percent for women.

However, the Education Ministry reports that now 7 million students are enrolled in school, about one-third of them are girls.

Figures vary dramatically from region to region. In relatively peaceful Bamiyan Province, 48 percent of students are girls, while that figure is less than 10 percent in volatile Helmand, Oruzgan, and Zabul provinces.

It is a fact that there are still an estimated 5 million school-aged children not enrolled in school, most of them in the insurgency-torn south and east of the country.

But it is important to resist the temptation (recently voiced by UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide) to focus education-development projects and school construction in the peaceful provinces.

This amounts to surrendering education to the Taliban and perpetuating social conditions that allow insurgents to thrive.

Helmand, Kandahar, Paktia and other insecure provinces need schools, teachers, and education more than other parts of the country.

War has already caused unspeakable suffering for the people living in such areas and the UN’s push for “aid effectiveness” cannot become a pretext for siphoning development assistance away from the areas where the need is greatest and the challenges most daunting.

It is a key, undeniable fact that illiteracy and ignorance are the oxygen that fuels the insurgency.

The Afghan Constitution guarantees equal access to education for all Afghans, regardless of place of residence, ethnicity, or language.

Afghanistan’s Second Millennium Development Goal states that “by 2020, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”

But should the current trend continue, Afghanistan will make uneven progress, and by 2020, literacy will jump to over 80 percent in relatively secure provinces, while illiteracy will be at over 80 percent in the violence-prone southern and eastern provinces.

Avoiding that future depends on taking wise action now.

Ajmal Samadi is director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Rights Monitor, an independent rights watchdog. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL