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The Sydney Morning Herald, June 9, 2012

Risking their lives for an education

By Ben Doherty

When the Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, there were 5000 girls enrolled in schools across the country. A little over a decade on, that number is 2.4 million.Today, in the capital Kabul, the sight of dozens of girls walking to school together is so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

But for girls in Afghanistan, getting an education remains a fraught, and at times, dangerous endeavour. The Afghan National Directorate for Security this week announced the arrest of 15 people for their alleged role in spraying the grounds of girls' schools in Takhar province with a yet to be identified poison.

Six schools had been targeted in the past three weeks. More than 400 girls fell ill. None have died. But these were only the latest in a spate of attacks.

The Afghan Ministry of Education says that 550 schools in 11 provinces where the Taliban hold influence have been shut down by insurgents. In the central Ghazni province, students at 119 schools had been threatened not to attend classes. And last month, again in Takhar, more than 150 girls were poisoned after drinking from a school well that had been contaminated.

Dissuading girls from school through fear - by poisoning wells, by burning down buildings or throwing acid in their faces - has long been a tactic of Taliban extremists.

But this time Afghan authorities have alleged it is the Pakistani government's spy agency, by financing and assisting Taliban insurgents, that is poisoning Afghan schoolgirls. ''The regional spy agencies, namely ISI, are behind it,'' National Directorate of Security spokesman Lutfullah Mashal told a press conference. ''They are trying to sabotage the … success of Afghan education.''

The number of girls attending school drops off dramatically after primary school: 1.9 million Afghan girls are enrolled in primary school, but only 400,000 in secondary school, and just 120,000 in higher education.
Across Afghanistan, literacy remains the exception rather than the rule - the adult literacy rate is 26 per cent. In rural areas, where three-quarters of Afghans live, 93 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men cannot perform basic reading and writing tasks.
The Sydney Morning Herald, Jun. 9, 2012

An ISI spokesman has dismissed the Afghan accusations as an ''absurd and senseless … attempt to strain ties between the two countries''. Pakistan, he said, ''wants peace and stability in Afghanistan''.

The Taliban has also denied involvement, saying its mujahideen did not poison innocent children.

But among the 15 people arrested, Mashal said, were a Taliban ''deputy governor'' and a commander, as well as two girl students and teachers at provincial schools. The two students, one in grade 11 and the other in grade 9, had been paid 50,000 Afghanis ($1000) to spray the grounds of girls' schools in Takhar with a toxic powder, it is alleged.

The powder, according to Afghanistan's public health minister, causes breathing problems, headaches and vomiting.

A year 9 student, Zakia, told Outlook Afghanistan: ''When I entered the school, I smelt an odour. After smelling, I fell unconscious on the ground.''

For all the entreaties of Afghanistan's enfeebled government, and all the on the ground endeavours of international forces and NGOs, extremist efforts to keep girls from schools can be effective, particularly in remote parts of the country where government, police or soldiers have little power.

Thirty-two per cent of boys in Afghanistan complete primary school, compared with 13 per cent of girls. Girls are kept home not only because of violence against them, but also to work, because their families are poor, or because they have been married off, according to UN research.

The number of girls attending school drops off dramatically after primary school: 1.9 million Afghan girls are enrolled in primary school, but only 400,000 in secondary school, and just 120,000 in higher education.

Across Afghanistan, literacy remains the exception rather than the rule - the adult literacy rate is 26 per cent. In rural areas, where three-quarters of Afghans live, 93 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men cannot perform basic reading and writing tasks.

With 50 per cent of Afghanistan's 30 million people aged under 15, the hope lies in educating the next generation. Care Australia has been involved in community education programs since the days of the Taliban. The organisation now helps educate nearly 8500 students, 65 per cent of whom are girls. Senior Programs Officer Alexandra Balmer says the vast majority of Afghan families want their girls in school.

''With Taliban rule and 10 years now of military intervention moving towards a transition period, communities want there to be a safe space for all children to have access to education.''

But barriers still exist to getting girls to class, and keeping them there, especially beyond primary years. Mothers and fathers who never went to school themselves are sometimes reluctant to allow their children to go, especially if it means time away from working in the home or on farms. Heavy snowfalls in winter - the season just gone was particularly severe - keep many at home.

And secondary school-aged girls need a separate, usually enclosed, place for lessons, especially physical education, a challenge for infrastructure-poor Afghanistan.

''Distance in accessing schools is a major issue,'' Ms Balmer says. ''And when there's not a safe space for girls to walk to school, that insecurity on the way to school is a barrier.

''As well, there's a lot of productive household time lost walking to and from school … when some students have to walk up to seven kilometres to school.''

with Agence France-Presse

Category: Children, HR Violations, Education - Views: 7642


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