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Education in Afghanistan – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

KABUL, Jun 26 2013 (IPS) - Despite impressive advancements in enrolment rates, media reports of gas attacks on girls’ schools, shoddy books, and a lack of classroom facilities continue to mar the reputation of the education system in Afghanistan.

Many locals feel that landmark developments such as the enrolment of roughly eight million children – 37 percent of whom are girls – compared to the 900,000 exclusively male students enroled under the Taliban go largely unreported.

Other, less obvious changes, such as the gradual removal of references to war and violence from school textbooks, have also escaped media attention, said former human rights commissioner Nader Nadery.

Nadery, current chairman of the Free and Fair Elections Foundation, told IPS that between 1996 and 2001, boys-only schools functioning under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan studied material that actively promoted violence.

In mathematics classes, for example, he said word problems included such scenarios as: “If you shoot a gun and the bullet travels at X speed towards a soldier standing 500 metres away, how long does it take to kill him?”

According to Nadery, tireless work by human rights bodies led to a revision of these texts between 2006 and 2007 to include, among other things, gender-sensitive references that replaced such passages as: “The boy was playing football while the girl was carrying water and washing dishes.”

Education Minister Spokesman Amanullah Eman told IPS that youth now learn about hitherto taboo subjects like tolerance and the dangers and diseases associated with drug-use.

English and computer skills are also taught in government–funded religious schools, which Eman says about two percent of children attend, including some 15,000 girls.

And whereas “religious instruction was given in Arabic under the previous regime, we have now translated all the books into the two national languages: Dari and Pashto,” he added.

The past few years have also seen rapid growth in the number of private institutes of both basic and higher education.

One of the best known is the Kardan Institute of Higher Education, which was founded in 2003 by four Afghans in “a single room when there were no other private institutions in the country,” said Hamid Saboory, a legal expert and consultant to the university.

This alternative to traditional institutions like Kabul University offered short courses in finance, management and business administration and is now one of the most highly respected of the “over 70 private institutions registered with the ministry,” he told IPS.

In rural areas, however, educational facilities and services can be difficult if not impossible to access. Some remote areas rely on lectures transmitted through TV to compensate for the lack of qualified vocational trainers, Nadery said.

Meanwhile, in the northeastern province of Kapisa, at Al-Biruni University, a number of girls in the law faculty complained to IPS of frequent power outages, and going days without running water in the dormitories.

Still, the presence of so many young women in the law faculty, hailing from such far-flung provinces as Farah in the west to Jowjzan in the north and in many cases coming with the blessings of their fathers, is an encouraging sign of slow but sure change.

Payvand Seyedali, former executive director of Aid Afghanistan for Education (AAE), echoed this observation, but stressed the need to change a law that bans anyone who is married from enroling in the public school system.

“This has serious implications,” she pointed out, “for girls who are married at 13,14, 15…who are essentially (forced) to drop out of school.”

However, AAE schools that cater specifically to this population found that many husbands, brothers and fathers were often the ones encouraging their female relatives to stay in school, “sometimes even making that a condition of the marriage,” she told IPS.

A researcher on ethnic bias in Afghan textbooks who asked not to be named sounded a word of caution about the complexities of creating an “inclusive” education system in a country of 35.2 million people, of whom 42 percent are thought to be Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, nine percent Uzbek and nine percent Hazara.

He found that 100 percent of the references to people, groups or dynasties in eighth-grade textbooks are all Pashtun, a pattern that is repeated in other grades as well.

Other inconsistencies in the curriculum include gaping holes in national history. For instance, the last 40 years of the country’s history were left out of high school social science textbooks, a decision supposedly motivated by the desire to “promote national unity”, according to the government.

Asked about this move, Technical Education and Vocational Training (TVET) Deputy Minister Mohammad Asif Nang said that all parties to the bloodiest part of Afghan history could be impacted by mention of the 32 years of war.

“People from the Communist regime, from the Taliban regime, from the Mujahedeen” are still alive, and their children could end up fighting one another, he said.

The deputy minister stressed, “Every day we build five schools. Every day we have activities for teachers (to gain more skills).”

He lambasted an overly critical media that jumps on flaws in the system and exaggerates their impact.

What the country needs during this phase of state-building, he said, is more support, correction of mistakes and adjustments to and reform of the system, a process that risks being derailed by negative media.

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