Afghan education authorities say they are facing a difficult task of convincing parents to send their daughters to school as attacks on female students have increased in recent months.
Three girls sustained severe burns in the southern town of Kandahar earlier in the week when unknown men sprayed acid on up to 15 girls. One of the girls might permanently lose her sight.[utube]J-9U9mR9nx4[/utube]
Under its strict interpretation of Islam, the Taliban regime banned girls from receiving educations while it ruled the country before its overthrow in late 2001.
Classes have been cancelled in Kandahar's Nazo Ana high school for girls as most of its students and teachers have decided to stay home after hearing about the acid attack.
Mahmud Qaderi, the school's director, said only some 35 girls -- out of 1,300 students -- showed up at school on November 15. "Our classrooms are normally full," the director said.
Qaderi hopes parents' anxiety will soon disappear and that the girls will return to school.
One of the victims, Atifa, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that she was walking to school with her sister and cousins on the morning of November 12 when two men riding motorcycles sprayed acid on the girls' faces with water pistols.
Kandahar schoolgirls are easily recognizable with their uniforms of white tops, black trousers, dark coats, and headscarves.
Atifa said some of the girls were lucky enough to escape with minor injures, while at least three others were hospitalized with severe burns on their faces, necks, and hands. One of them is still unable to open her eyes and doctors fear she may lose her eyesight. She was taken to Kabul military hospital for medical treatment.
About 120 people in the education sector have been killed in attacks, he told AFP.
Security fears have caused more than 640 schools to close, most of them in volatile districts in the south and east of the country, Elmi said.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Afghan officials blame the Taliban for targeting students. Girls were banned from school during the hard-line militants' rule that ended in 2001.
Kandahar was the Taliban's main stronghold and is still one of the most volatile areas in the war-torn country.
However, schoolgirls are also being targeted in the relatively stable and peaceful province of Balkh in Afghanistan's north.
Villagers in Balkh's Jarbulak and Chimtal districts have said unknown people distributed leaflets to their houses overnight, warning them against sending their daughters to school.
According to Afghanistan's Education Ministry over 120 schools came under attack, with some of them burnt down. Nearly 600 schools have been closed down because of security threats.
Taliban militants have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks, vowing to carry out more.
Siddiq Patman, Afghanistan's deputy education minister, said most of the attacks take place in the southern and eastern provinces, such as Kandahar, Paktika, and Logar where the Taliban have more influence among local people.
Two girls were killed and three more wounded when gunmen targeted schoolchildren in Logar Province last year.
Parents Want Reassurance
Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, have condemned the latest acid attack in Kandahar as a "cowardly act" against innocent children.
Parents, however, want the government to do more than just condemning the attacks. Many want to know if the government is capable of protecting their children and preventing such incidents in future.
A Kandahar resident, whose two daughters were among the acid attack victims, said she had always wanted her daughters to get an education and "not to be left illiterate like their parents."
However, now she is having second thoughts. "I won't send my daughters to school after such an attack. Would you?" said the mother.
Patman said the Education Ministry has asked local governments to deploy more police officers to protect students and teachers and their schools.
They have also called on parents to accompany their children to and from school.
"Education Ministry alone cannot do much to protect our students and schools," said the deputy minister. "Everyone, including parents, local people, and religious leaders have to take part in this campaign -- because our country's future depends on the education system."