Nazifa is typical of millions of Afghan girls. She was forced to drop out of school as a teenager when the Taliban came to power and began to close down girls’ schools. For three years, she attended classes in secret and dreamed of the day she would be able to resume her education. Now 20, she is hoping to graduate this year and move on to college.
While Nazifa is one of the lucky ones, the reality is that Afghan girls still face huge obstacles in going to school. Yet education is vital if they are going to lift themselves – and Afghanistan – out of poverty. Getting girls back into school is one of the rare good stories to come out of Afghanistan in the last nine years. After the Ministry of Education and UNICEF held a back-to-school campaign, there are now 2.4 million girls enrolled, compared to just 5,000 in 2001. That is good news – but right now those hard-fought gains are in danger of slipping away.
In 2010 Oxfam interviewed more than 1,600 girls, teachers, and parents across Afghanistan about girls’ access to education. Factors such as poverty and insecurity, as well as the state of the school system itself, are making it increasingly harder for girls to stay in school or to receive the kind of schooling they need.
But despite these obstacles, many Afghan girls and their parents want a decent education and the chance of a better life. Nazifa’s mother is like many parents. A widow with five children, she decided not to return to her family’s remote village when her husband died. Instead, she stayed in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and worked as a cleaner at the college – a bold move in a country where few women work outside the home and job opportunities are few and far between.
She tells me, “It has been very hard. But I don’t want my children to have the same life that I have had. If they don’t study, they will be servants like me.”
Studying is not easy in Afghanistan, where three decades of conflict have left both the education system and the country in ruins. When asked what girls, teachers, and parents saw as the main challenges for girls’ education, more than 40 percent said poverty is the single biggest obstacle. Girls are forced to drop out of school to help support their families or because their families cannot afford to pay basic costs such as uniforms or transport. And when families are forced to choose, it is often the girls who lose out.
Meena, 17, and her two sisters had to drop out after her father decided he could not afford for them to continue. Her brother stayed in school. She says, “People treat girls and boys differently. There are families who don’t let their daughters go to school because they don’t have money to buy notebooks or pens. But boys usually don’t have any problems. It’s because many people don’t like girls going to school.”
Growing insecurity is also a major problem. As conflict spreads into previously secure areas, more and more parents will likely feel they have little choice but to keep their daughters at home. But while they may be safer at home, they will also be more isolated and deprived of the chance to improve their lives.
In some ways, the back-to-school campaign has been a victim of its own success. The Ministry of Education is struggling to keep up with demand after such an enormous influx of students. More than two-thirds of the teachers interviewed by Oxfam said that there were not enough teachers, especially female teachers, at their school. Female teachers make up just 30 percent of the total, with most working in urban areas.
In addition, conditions make it difficult for girls to learn. Some 42 percent of girls told us their school did not even have a building. I visited one school in Parwan province, close to Kabul, where girls are taught in old aluminium shipping containers or in tents. As Rasuly, a father of ten told me, “We have no other option. When it gets cold, the students get sick because there aren’t proper doors or windows. They often have to stay home. Many are discouraged and they leave.”
Getting children, especially girls, into school was a major priority for donors in 2002. In recent years, however, many have focused on counter-insurgency and supporting military efforts rather than long-term development. In 2010, the United States is estimated to have spent $1 billion on quick impact “development” projects, which were channelled through military structures and were designed to win “hearts and minds” - compared to the $1.9 billion invested in education by all donors in Afghanistan over the last nine years.
With the United States and others focused on their exit strategy and withdrawal of troops by 2014, education will likely fall further down the priority list and the gains made thus far will be lost. This would be disastrous for Afghanistan, which needs a literate and skilled population to become a stable and self-reliant country. Studies have shown that an educated female population benefits an entire society. For example, Afghanistan suffers from one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world - yet studies estimate that infant mortality drops by five to ten percent for every extra year that girls stay in school.
Working with the Afghan government, the United States and other donors must prioritize the promotion of girls’ education, especially in rural areas. This means providing more properly equipped schools, increasing the numbers of trained female teachers, and providing girls with better access to secondary education.
Afghan parents such as Nazifa’s mother want the best for their daughters, including a good education to give them a better life. But they cannot do it alone. Donors are investing significant resources in Afghanistan. They need to invest it where it matters and help keep girls like Nazifa in school.