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Environment

Afghanistan struggles to educate girls

The international community has made schools for Afghan girls a priority - but security concerns and patriarchal traditions still challenge efforts to ensure equal rights to education.

A girls' school in Kunduz, Afghanistan

Only 10 percent of Afghan girls attend secondary school

Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has invested more than 70 million euros in Afghanistan's education sector since 2002. Berlin has also spent some 29.5 million euros to fund professional education in the country, in the belief that with education comes security:

"An important prerequisite for the future of a stable and secure Afghanistan is the establishment of a fair and sustainable education system," states an article on the federal government's website.

Meanwhile, Germany's Foreign Office has built more than 30 schools in Afghanistan since 2002, using funding from the Stability Pact, and has helped hundreds of schools pay for equipment, tents and minor renovations. The government also highlighted partnerships between German universities and their Afghan counterparts.

Afghan girls at the Aziz Afghan Secondary School in Kabul

Sima Samar says democracy in Afghanistan depends on equal rights for women

The right to education

There are clear signs of progress: According to United Nations statistics, some 7 million Afghan children now attend school. When Taliban rule ended about a decade ago, that number was only about 900,000.

New schools and universities have been built in the country, and others have been renovated. There are new streets and power lines, and the capital Kabul is booming. Since 2001, Afghanistan has adopted a new constitution and elected representatives.

But according to Sima Samar, chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), "another measure of democracy is equal rights for women."

When it comes to political progress in her country, she remains skeptical. "Without equal rights for women, there is no democracy," she told Deutsche Welle - adding that Afghanistan cannot achieve sustainable development if women lack equal rights to learn.

Basic education is also a matter of health: Samar, who holds a medical degree, said schooling could save lives in a country where maternal and child mortality rates are still high. The UN reports that one in every 11 Afghan women dies during pregnancy or childbirth. Twenty percent of Afghan children die before the age of five.

In Kabul, Afghan boys inside a tent classroom donated by UNICEF

Half of Afghanistan's 12,000 schools are makeshift classrooms

Visibility matters

Ensuring that women have equal rights to education is a challenge in a country where women have been traditionally barred from going to school. Under the Taliban, girls were forbidden to attend school.

In 2004, the country's new constitution guaranteed women equal rights, including the right to education - but the reality in Afghanistan continues to look a great deal different, particularly in rural areas.

Culture and religion still shape the country's patriarchal tribal society, and men are still the traditional decision-makers. That, coupled with 30 years of war in the country, high poverty and chronic lack of development, has kept women invisible - relegated to marginalized roles.

About 2.5 million girls now attend school, but most of them are only allowed to complete a primary education. The length of time a girl is allowed to attend school depends on a number of considerations: family honor, income, societal pressure, the distance of the school and the local security situation.

Afghan girls traditionally marry very young, and only 10 percent attend secondary school, compared to 21 percent of boys. In three-quarters of all Afghan districts, there are still no secondary schools for girls.

Slipping schools

"The education sector is stagnating," Samar told Deutsche Welle, blaming ongoing violence in the country, as a well as a change in the international community's priorities in Afghanistan. Initially, she said, global engagement was also focused on "empowering women in Afghanistan and protecting human rights."

Now, Samar said, the focus is on a "fast reconciliation without clear preconditions, without clear responsibility, without justice and transparency, and without special protection for women."

"Today it's about negotiating with the Taliban," she added.

According to the Afghan education ministry, only 12 percent of all women over the age of 15 can read and write, compared to 43 percent of men. The national literacy rate is at 28 percent.

The Ghazi High School in Kabul, Afghanistan

Today, some 7 million Afghan children attend school

Lessons for less

For both girls and boys, however, about half of the country's approximately 12,000 schools are not proper school buildings at all; instead, many are temporary structures. Lessons are usually taught in overcrowded spaces, where children have to sit on the floor. Girls and boys are taught separately in shifts, often giving them fewer than four hours a day in the classroom.

The schools also lack teaching materials, and many of the books available are out of date. Teachers are generally poorly education themselves; fewer than 20 percent attended high school.

Meanwhile, low wages leave many teachers with little motivation. About 70 percent of all teacher trainees who completed their degrees at the Kabul Education University in 2009 now work for foreign aid organizations, as office clerks, translators or drivers - jobs that pay better.

Ensuring that children - especially girls - get an education in more volatile areas of Afghanistan, such as the south and east of the country, is a particular challenge. Nearly 10 years after the fall of the Taliban, many Afghans are simply focused on survival.

Author: Sandra Petersmann (arp)
Editor: Guy Degen

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