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Schooling for a Scarred Generation

March 12, 2002

As Afghanistan begins picking up the pieces and limping back to normality, UNICEF has launched a campaign aimed to provide basic schooling for more than 1.5 million Afghan children.

The first tentative steps to school...Image: AP

After 20 years of war, just 35 percent of men and 5 percent of women in Afghanistan's once-learned population can read and write. But the war is near over, or seems so, and education alongside the immediate task of feeding people has been made a top priority for the interim government of Hamid Karzai.

His administration together with the United Nations Children's Fund now wants to make sure that at least 1.7 million new Afghan students will be able to receive basic education when the new school year starts in late March after the end of the long, harsh winter.

In Afghanistan's native languages it's called sabak – "the return of learning".

As part of the back-to-school campaign, UNICEF has delivered huge volumes of teaching material and hired tens of thousands of teachers to re-start schooling on March 21.

During the years of Taliban rule there were primarily religious schools in Afghanistan. Girls got no official education at all and women teachers were banned

The UNICEF campaign marks the first time in more than 5 years that women teachers and girls are allowed back into Afghan schools.

An elementary start

Reinhard Schlagintweit, the head of UNICEF Germany, said that the Afghan government is eager to face up to the daunting task of education for all.

"For many years schooling was in a very bad state because the Taliban rule did not allow women to teach. But 80 percent of Afghan teachers were women, and girls could not go to school at all. So now is the chance, with the help also of the money which comes from the international organisations, to pay teachers again"

After the announcement of the campaign in Berlin, Schlagintweit said that UNICEF has hired more than 50,000 women teachers and has distributed 60,000 so-called school-in-a-box kits, a complete unit containing enough classroom material for a class of 40 children.

Along with textbook, workbooks, pencils and the like, the UNICEF will also supply teachers with chalk boards, teaching materials and training in the new school curriculum that has been developed by the education authorities along with UNICEF's help. The UNICEF will also provide tents for temporary classrooms along with portable toilets.

Afghanische Frauen lernen lesen und schreiben
Mädchen und Frauen aus Afghanistan können in Pakistan zum ersten Mal kostenlos eine Schule besuchen. In dem winzigen Klassenzimmer, dessen gesamte Einrichtung aus Matten und einer Tafel besteht, lernen täglich 80 Schülerinnen in zweistündigen Schichten. Die Schule in Quetta besteht erst seit drei Monaten, und es gibt bereits eine lange Warteliste. In Afghanistan hatte die Talibanregierung den Schulbesuch für Frauen verboten. Betrieben wird die Schule durch die Organisation Revolutionäre Vereinigung der Frauen Afghanistans (RAWA).Image: AP

Thirst for knowledge

But he also said that he expects some problems especially in areas where the war has not yet ended.

"I cannot promise that it will be carried through all over Afghanistan because security is still a problem. There are areas where there is still fighting. But the government and UNICEF are doing their very best to bring as many children into school as possible."

Less trouble, he said, can be expected from Afghanistan's religious rulers. Resistance to education had been due more to poverty and years of conflict than local culture and religion.

And many of the strict edicts imposed on education by the Taliban rulers have even created a longing for knowledge, he said.

"The desire to learn is much greater than it was 20 years ago. All people who have witnessed the first schools which were set up after the Taliban had left have said that the children are so eager, and that the parents are so eager to send their boys and girls into school, so that there is an enormous atmosphere that all want to go into the future."

UNICEF has enlisted the help of local radio, and the women's associations all over Afghanistan to make the campaign a success.

UNICEF is also working with the BBC to develop a series of radio messages in local languages, encouraging parents to register their children at school and providing information on the schools.

Tellingly, said Schlagintweit, one of the first subjects to be taught will be mine awareness – a key factor in a country where mine-related deaths are commonplace.

But much remains to be done.

The logistical challenge of rebuilding shattered school and university buildings, paying the salaries of thousands of teachers and school staff, printing new textbooks and ordering school supplies is daunting.