Afghanistan: rebuilding girls’ education after decades of conflict

Nahida, a school principal in Kabul, is the third participant in our ten-week #TeacherTuesday campaign. In Afghanistan, conflict has raged for decades, cultural opposition to girls’ schooling is deep-seated, and education for girls was banned altogether under the Taliban. Nahida describes how she has struggled for 25 years to defend and improve girls’ education in the face of gender bias and conflict that still affect her work every day.

After graduating from Kabul University in the late 1980s, Nahida became a teacher. But then the Taliban came to power.

Under the Taliban: a secret school for girls
“It was their policy to close all the schools for females. For me, it was difficult to go to school to teach. When I went to my school, the principal was a mullah and he didn’t allow me to enter and asked me after that not to come to school.  But for the boys, school was open.

“When I understood the policy of Taliban was not to allow girls and female teachers to go to school, I started a home school for girls that was very secret and not official because families and their parents asked me to teach their daughters. It was a very strict time. Very difficult. I was afraid.”

Afghan students coats hung on the wall at a school in Kabul
Afghan students coats hung on the wall at a school in Kabul

When the Taliban fell, the way was open to restore education for girls. But first everything had to be rebuilt from scratch – there was literally nothing left.

The long process of rebuilding
“When I went to my school it was completely destroyed. The buildings had no windows, no doors. The surrounding wall was destroyed. Schools didn’t have any chairs, tables, blackboard, chalk – no school materials at all. First I cleaned the classes with the help of my teachers. I made the surrounding wall in mud and stones. I gave messages to families and, mosques and asked them to send their daughters to school.

“The girls came back slowly, slowly. I encouraged families, asked their parents to school, encouraged them, talked with them. Also I sent my female teachers to their homes. I announced it in different mosques.”

Despite improvements over the decade, the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4 shows that Afghanistan still has the highest level of gender disparity in primary education in the world with only 71 girls in primary school for every 100 boys. In 1999, no girls were in secondary school in the country. By 2011, there were still only 55 girls in secondary school for every 100 boys.

Girls in class in Afghanistan
Girls in class in Afghanistan

For Nahida and her students, the conflict in Afghanistan is far from over. “Now in Afghanistan, war continues every day. There are suicide attacks, bombs. The insecurity, and instability is a big challenge for our people, especially for girls. When a suicide attack happens, families don’t allow their girls to go to school for one or two days. Also for boys, but especially for girls. I have organized special transportation for my students. It’s a good solution to prevent absenteeism of girls from school.”

The struggle to hire and train enough women teachers
Nahida’s long experience underlines how important it is for governments to hire and train female teachers. As our new gender summary of the EFA GMR 2013/4 shows, however, women teachers are particularly lacking in areas with wide gender disparity in enrolment.

In 2008, in Afghanistan, less than 30% of those in initial teacher education were female, even though the numbers had been increasing thanks to programmes enabling women to enter teaching with lower qualifications. In 2011, less than a third of teachers in primary education in the country were female.

Female teachers are even less likely to work in rural areas. “It’s the big challenge for education,” Nahida confirmed. “In the provinces, especially in the unstable provinces like the south of Afghanistan, the lack of female teachers causes schools difficulties. The government is planning to do more to educate and hire female teachers, but it is hard to send teachers to the provinces because of lack of security.”

A big part of the problem is that so few girls complete secondary school – the basic qualification for becoming a teacher. “Day by day the number of girls decreases especially in the high grade classes like 10, 11 and 12,” Nahida said.  Our WIDE database confirms that only 6% of young women aged15-24 years in rural areas had completed lower secondary school in 2010.

Gender disparities in lower secondary school in AfghanistanIn the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report, we outline recommendations to help policy makers encourage more female teachers to work in disadvantaged areas, including providing female teachers with incentives, such as safe housing, to move to rural areas. Alternatively, local recruitment can also ensure that poor, rural girls receive the benefits of being taught by a female teacher.

In the case of Afghanistan, the government aims to increase the number of female teachers by 50% by 2014 with monetary and housing incentives for female teachers, and special teacher training programmes for women in remote areas and women who do not meet current qualification requirements.

Looking to the future
Conflict-affected countries like Afghanistan desperately need help. But total aid to basic education in Afghanistan fell from US$288 million in 2010 to US$217 million in 2011. Meanwhile, appeals for humanitarian aid during and after conflict tend to neglect education needs. In 2012, education received only 3% of the humanitarian funding raised for Afghanistan.

For Nahida, education is not something to be viewed as a problem, but as part of the solution for breaking the cycle of conflict: “Educated people don’t take guns,“ she said. “They don’t destroy their country and their schools.”

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  1. I remember the days when Talibans were in power in the 1990s when education was totally banned for girls. But brave mothers who were keen to see that their girls receive education organised ‘Home Schools’ a unique strategy to overcome the difficulties. This happened in the major towns of Afghanistan both in Kabul and Kandahar. These conducted in secrecy. I remember visiting such a school in Kabul .I was advised by the head teacher not to stay in the school for more than 10 minutes and to leave the UN vehicle far away from the premises, which I honored. .In Kandahar I remember UNHCR supported a home school project providing a) text books b) written materials c) training teachers d) inviting Taliban education officers to Islamabad for a briefing etc. This was not to the liking of some other UN agencies! Sometimes I feel that some UN agencies have also acted irrationally.

    .I remember Mullah Hassan’s statement to me when he said that ‘ In as much as the Talibans have extremists (opposing education for girls ) the UN too has such persons who do tit for tat for the poor Afghans’.. This project of Home Schools in Kandahar was entirely done with the consent of Mullah Hassan. Few know about this operation.
    The lesson is that ‘help the poor and powerless irrespective of opposition so long it is of beneficial to them. AVOID HIDDEN AGENDAS’..
    S.B. Ekanayake Ph.D
    former Basic Education Advisor Central Asia

  2. Nahida, I admire your work and dedication. You’re a brave woman. Congratulations

  3. Nahida you are really very brave, a growth of a country can’t possible without educated youth specially girls. we are really proud of you.

  4. Today we’re happy that afghan girls again got time to go back to schools and colleges. The black time is over. A new era has been started with new challenges and opportunities. Afghanistan is a strong country with strong people living in it. All afghans should accept life challenges and must get more knowledge in order to stand on their own feet.

  5. Today we’re happy that afghan girls again got time to go back to schools and colleges. The black time is over. A new era has been started with new challenges and opportunities. Afghanistan is a strong country with strong people living in it. All afghans should accept life challenges and must get more knowledge in order to stand on their own feet.

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