Women in Afghanistan suffered severely under the Taliban regime. They were prevented from going to school and working. Today, the country depends on help from abroad to guarantee schooling for girls.
Patience and determination - that is 87-year-old Ursula Nölle's motto. It served her well as chair of VUSA, an association for supporting Afghanistan's schools, which has achieved more than many other educational institutions.
When Nölle began her work in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, she made one thing clear to the parents and spiritual leaders of the children in the camps: "We will only build schools for you if you also let girls attend."
Her concept was a success. Since the Soviet War in Afghanistan during the 1980s, countless young women have attended the foundation's schools. Even when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, closed women's schools and fired teachers, Ursula Nölle did not give up.
"I told the parents that teachers in Kabul could offer lessons at home," Nölle said, and her foundation proceeded to establish 19 home schools, where teachers who had been fired could continue their work and where young girls could get an education.
100 classrooms for Afghanistan
Ursula Nölle was not afraid that the home schools might be discovered and closed.
"The Taliban was not permitted to speak with women," she said. "So they could not just burst into people's homes and say, we want to see what the women here are doing.'"
It was a simple fact of life in Afghanistan that VUSA used to its advantage.
Once the Taliban was overthrown, girls' and women's education became the focus of international aid programs. Under the motto "Back to school," the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) began working with the Afghan government in the early 2000s on a major educational campaign. The organization advertised with posters, on the radio and on TV to promote the enrollment of children in schools, financing seven million schoolbooks and eight million notebooks.
Deutsche Welle also got involved at the time, working together with the organization Cap Anamur (German Emergency Doctors) on a donation drive to fund classrooms for Afghanistan. The planned 100 classrooms became nearly 300, and Cap Anamur used the donations to build 35 schools in northern Afghanistan. Nine years after the event, Cap Anamur says that all of the schools are still in operation.
Tomorrow's illiteracy problem?
"Our progress has been impressive because, thanks to international aid, we have been able to raise the number of female pupils from zero to 39 percent of the population," said Amanullah Iman, a speaker for the Afghan Department of Education. Today around 3.5 million girls go to school. There are now more than 14,000 schools in the country, with 3,000 of them devoted exclusively to girls' education.
But, Amanullah admits, there are still considerable problems as far as learning opportunities for girls and women are concerned. Currently more than four million Afghan children cannot go to school, he said. Most of them are girls. The government wants to change that in the next three years - with good reason.
Money for war, not education
The international aid organization Oxfam and other institutions co-published an alarming report in February 2011 in which they argued that international forces in Afghanistan have focused so heavily on stabilizing the security situation in the country and combating rebels that longer-term projects have fallen by the wayside. The successes seen so far in supporting education for women and girls are in danger, according to the report.
Masouda Jalal, a former minister for women's affairs and the first female presidential candidate in 2004, notes that many schools built by international aid no longer exist.
"Many of them were destroyed in attacks by the Taliban. We really need security for the situation to turn out well," she said.
Increasing attacks on schools
If the international community leaves the country by the end of 2014 without seeing its goals through, hard times will be ahead for Afghans, Jalal said, warning, "The international community has not done its job at all. They must help us so that the problems with the Taliban and the growing uncertainty of the populace come to an end."
Schools have come into greater favor among the Taliban and other extremists as targets for attacks. In 2009, an average of 50 assaults on schools was recorded monthly. By using threats and intimidation, terrorists were able to force teachers to give up their jobs, and parents were made to feel compelled to leave their children at home.
Lack of female teachers
An added problem is the lack of women in educational jobs in many parts of Afghanistan, which represents a serious problem for supporting girls in schools. In the country's villages, many families only allow their daughters to go to school if they will be taught solely by women, observes Ursula Nölle.
"Most Afghan girls cannot work after they get married, as tradition has it," she said. "Married women are given over to their work in the home and caring for their families."
VUSA is now at work on this issue at well, helping to make it easier for women to return to work. "Young teachers who got married and had children, who then disappeared within their husbands' families, are now able to teach again," Nölle said.
But more schools and pre-schools are still needed so that the young teachers can really pursue their work - a task that brings the 87-year-old educational pioneer back to the core goal of her foundation.
Author: Mehrnoosh Entezari / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen