Security concerns in Afghanistan has forced about 1,000 schools to close this year. This is more than double last year’s total, adding to problems that children face in getting an education, officials said.
Education officials fear next year could be even worse if Taliban insurgents seize more territory. “Our students are the first victims of the war,” said Mujib Mehrdad, education ministry spokesman.
“If the Taliban continue to gain strength, gains we have made could easily disappear,” he said, adding that 24 of the 34 provinces had been forced to shut some schools due to insecurity.
The Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Since then Afghanistan’s education system has made significant gains. Before then, girls were excluded from formal education altogether and fewer than 1 million boys went to school.
Aid donors have poured about $1 billion into schools, helping to provide 8.4 million children with access to education, according to UNICEF.
However, the progress made after schools reopened in 2002 has been impeded by violence and other firms of insecurity.
The Taliban and other groups have for many years attacked schools, teachers and students.
Types of attacks on schools included the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines and suicide bombs in or around schools, looting and forced closure of schools.
The UN reported 613 school-related attacks in 2009, compared with 348 in the whole of 2008, with attacks on schools increasing in areas around Kabul and in the east. However, the number of incidents dropped to 197 in 2010 and to 167 in 2012.
Anti-government groups were responsible for the ‘vast majority’ of attacks in 2012, the groups operating both covertly and publicly, sometimes claiming responsibility for attacks and sometimes denying activities attributed to them by others, making the overall conflict – and efforts to determine the source of attacks – complex.
Motives for attacks included opposition to the perceived ‘western’ or ‘un-Islamic’ curriculum, external affiliations of the school or the perceived role of Western forces in rebuilding some schools, the education of girls generally, or any operation of the central government.
In 2012, the Taliban made public statements saying it did not oppose education but only curricula that tried to supplant Islamic and national values with western culture. It also denied responsibility for attacks on schools.
Nevertheless, attacks and threats of attack continued in areas controlled by anti-government groups, including the Taliban.
In some places, the Taliban allowed schools to reopen. In these areas, Taliban officials sought to control the curriculum and the appointment of teachers, and place additional restrictions on girls.
They also appointed ‘controllers’ or shadow directors who distributed Taliban directives on schools and pressed local officials to change the curriculum in line with Taliban thinking.
In addition to schools being damaged, destroyed or shut down, students, teachers and other education personnel were killed, injured, abducted and driven away from their schools.
‘Night letters’ – threatening letters placed at night outside schools, en route to the school or outside teachers’ homes – warned entire communities not to send their daughters to school and calling on teachers and government employees to close schools, especially girls’ schools.
Some letters warned that failure to comply with the demand would lead to retribution, such as acid or gas attacks.
In another example, in 2009, a teacher at a girls’ school received a letter with Taliban insignia that forced her to quit her post: ‘We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and we shall set fire to your daughter…This is your first and last warning.’
Despite some progress, poor security has added to the problems being faced by an education system that is vital to the economic future of a country dependent on foreign aid.
About 3.5 million children are out of school, 75 percent of them girls, due not only to violence but also a lack of female teachers, early marriage and social restrictions in the conservative society. Just 5 percent of the province’s 50,000 school-aged girls make it to sixth grade.
The Taliban, who banned girls from school during their 1996-2001 rule, now say they do not oppose girls’ education. Their leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has issued statements saying fighters have orders not to damage schools.
However, government officials say the militants are shutting schools in areas they control. Around 20 girls’ schools have been forced to close this year, in areas where the Taliban operate.
The education ministry has stopped sending salaries to teachers in some Taliban-controlled areas because of concern the funds would fall into wrong hands, Mehrdad said.