On February 17th, the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute hosted the event ‘Girls’ Education in Afghanistan: 7 Million Reasons for Optimism and Hope’ at its Washington Square Park site. The lecture was moderated by Democracy Now’s host Amy Goodman and featured a fascinating set of female speakers who have all been working in some capacity to establish girls’ primary education in Afghanistan, and who come at the issue from different career paths and backgrounds. The speakers included Anita Anastacio (Senior Education Advisor at International Rescue Committee), Zama Coursen-Neff (Deputy Director of Children’s Rights at Human Rights Watch), Dana Burde (Assistant Professor of International Education at NYU), and Wagma Battoor (Program Quality, Development, and Learning Coordinator at CARE Afghanistan).
When people think of girls’ education in Afghanistan, a common misconception is that Afghan parents do not want their daughters educated and that they deny them education. In fact, many adult women are illiterate and do not want the same for their daughters. Cultural and societal norms are not the primary barrier to girls’ education. As Battoor explained, many Afghan people are proud of how some of their women are health care workers, teachers, and even ministers in the parliament, which can’t be said for all countries. In fact, education is so important the Afghanistan Ministry of Education has promised to provide free education for all children; however, it is still to be determined how exactly they will pay for this in the midst of their dire economic situation.
The reason girls (and children in general) are not in school in the war-torn country has less to do with culture and more to do with the Taliban regime. “Afghanistan lost an estimated 20,000 experts and academics, while its 17 universities and institutes were left devastated by conflict” (UN News Service, 2002). When the Taliban welded absolute power, the education system shut down completely and today, while the Taliban are not officially in power, their muscle–and the muscle of other extremist groups–still manifests in targeted attacks on school buildings. School buildings constructed by soldiers are more likely to be attacked. Also, the use of IEDs (improvised explosive devises) threaten young students on their journey to the classroom and cause unsteady attendance. School buildings are often sites of bomb attacks in Afghanistan because the Taliban works to create chaos and understands that destroying education centers is paramount to disrupting government and progress. Coursen-Neff reviewed other reasons that keep children from schools. These include the distance of schools from communities, security and hazards, insufficient number of teachers (especially female teachers), lack of facilities, scarce school supplies, absence of bathrooms at schools, and quality instruction. If anything were linked to culture, it would be that Afghan parents insist their girls are educated by only female teachers. At the same time, the prerequisite for female instructors means there are many teaching opportunities for female school graduates.
While education is an issue in general, hinderances to education are only amplified if the child is female, because parents often feel more secure sending their son on a three or four hour walk (one way) to school than their daughter. Yes, four hours. The school-day in Afghanistan is typically only two and a half hours to accommodate for this the commute time, which certainly has an impact on quality of education, another deterrent. Coursen-Neff mentioned that in the early 2000s, she met students who had been in primary school for three years, yet still could not read.
There is reason for hope despite these challenges and that reason is the number seven million. Seven million represents the number of students in school today, up from under one million before the fall of the Taliban. Much of this success has come from a community-based school model, which is supported by organizations like CARE and the Catholic Relief Services (a non-prosthelytizing group) and by the Afghanistan Ministry of Education. This community-based model brings schools closer to communities and greatly reduces the distance students must travel, especially in rural areas. In some rural areas where Anastacio, Coursen-Neff, and Battoor work, the number of girls attending school has risen to a laudable 60 percent. A community-based model has a government supported school at a central area and a cluster of smaller schools surrounding it. The goal is to have a school less than three kilometers from every village. The cluster schools are linked to the main schools and receive their supplies and teacher training in coordination with the main school. Anastacio has worked with communities to garner financial support for cluster schools and pay teachers’ salaries. She has found the communities generous and grateful for the schools. Parents give what they can and the teachers are not always paid a straightforward salary, but may receive housing or board. They also receive teacher training and development opportunities during school breaks. This is important because schools must prepare to support themselves since international education investment will most likely end in tandem with troop withdraw.
In the same vein, when American troops finally leave, many are more than worried about the potential increase in security threats. Because of the reoccurrence of bombings in newly constructed or sanctioned school buildings, many cluster schools still operate out of people’s homes or in tents. Not having permanent buildings does not inspire confidence in longevity. It is the hope of Afghan women leaders like Battoor that the new government will be able to protect education and live up to its promise of education for everyone.
When girls in Afghanistan go to school, researchers have found that they marry later and have their first child later. Typically, an Afghan woman will have four to six children in her lifetime and will marry in her teens. The women on the panel were proud to report that 2011 saw 206 girls graduate from 12th grade in the rural districts where they worked and 119 applied for university. Additionally, many older girls are teaching younger girls and curriculums are having less variance. Whether or not those 119 young women eventually enroll in university, there is still progress being made. Before the war started eleven years ago, a girl wasn’t born with a guaranteed opportunity to go to school. Today, an eleven-year-old has an opportunity to read and write and to become an educated leader. While there are countless reasons to be concerned for the future, today there are more than 7 million reasons for optimism and hope if you include people like those on the panel. Personally, I find all the women on the panel, in particular the beautiful courage and intelligence of Battoor, to be reasons for continued assurance and celebration.