Schools in Afghanistan have become battlegrounds, according to a recent report from the Norwegian Refugee Council. Armed conflict has not only made education seem like an afterthought but actually endangered students and learning institutions.
The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack reported there were approximately 180 attacks on schools in Afghanistan between 2013 and 2017, with over 25 percent targeting girls’ schools.
The upcoming Afghan presidential elections in October will make schools especially vulnerable. More than 60 percent of the voter registration and polling centers are schools. Attacks have already experienced a spike; there have been 271 civilian casualties related to the elections since voter registration opened on April 14th, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
There is hope that the Oslo Safe Schools Declaration, endorsed by 79 states since it was adopted at the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools in May 2015 to protect education through armed conflict, may be implemented to provide more security at schools before the election season.
The Declaration emphasizes preemptive measures. “Physical infrastructure could be reinforced, students could be escorted, there could be watch guards, principals could be trained in conflict communications, communities could help with early warning messages, school security plans could be developed and drilled,” Christopher Nyamandi, Country Director in Afghanistan for the NRC, told The Globe Post. If schools are attacked, backup plans could be put in place to ensure continued access.
“Relocation spaces for alternative education could be planned, temporary spaces could be set up in response to threats or following actual attacks, alternative education provided by distance learning through self-learning worksheets or radio.”
But physical safety isn’t the only concern for students. Surveys conducted by the NRC of the displaced, refugee returnee children, parents, and teachers found that children suffered overwhelming psychological effects as a result of the trauma they had experienced at schools or on their way to school.
Thirty-six percent of children were afraid they would be kidnapped on their way to school, while 12 percent had actually experienced attacks at school. The report said “many children interviewed had witnessed horrific violence and many were troubled by gruesome and intrusive memories that made it difficult to function in daily life, let alone study.” The surveyed children frequently suffered nightmares, flashbacks, physical pain, nausea, and fainting because of overwhelming emotional responses to frequent trauma.
Nyamandi explained that the Oslo Safe Schools Declaration can provide “psychosocial support courses that help build students’ abilities to cope, referral mechanisms to specialised mental health services, are all just some ways in which the exposure of students and staff to risks from conflict all be reduced.” Most of these services are not currently implemented. The Humanitarian Response’s Education in Emergencies response program was only 12.5 percent funded as of the beginning of July.
Women and girls are particularly affected. Girls’ schools are 26 percent more likely to close due to safety concerns than boys’ schools. Additionally, girls are significantly more prone to being harassed on their way to school, Nyamandi said. About 85 percent of the 3.5 million Afghan children out of school are girls, according to the Afghan government.
Actually getting girls into school is the biggest obstacle women’s education in Afghanistan faces currently. A recent report by Human Rights Watch, I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick, explains that access is limited because of discriminatory attitudes. One-third of girls are married before age 18, and are expected to drop out. Over 80 percent of teachers are male, and many girls’ parents will not accept them being taught by a man.
Many programs that encourage girls to receive an education are funded solely by international donors and implemented by NGOs, including “community-based education,” that is often taught in homes far from government schools during periods of intense conflict. However, donors have become increasingly disengaged in recent years. The HRW report says that these programs “have no consistent connection with the government school system and come and go due to the unreliable cycles of funding to nongovernmental organizations.”
Professor at the School of International Development at the University of Ottawa and Senior Advisor at the Rideau Institute Nipa Banerjee argues that increased funding is not the solution.
“I don’t think funding deficit is necessarily a problem. It’s a quality of programming that is lacking in Afghanistan, and I find that the donors are increasingly disengaged in policy issues,” she told The Globe Post.
Banerjee characterizes the donors as having “attention deficiency disorder,” as they quickly jump between countries and policy issues although situations continue to deteriorate.
For example, Banerjee points out the lack of a structured curriculum that ensures gender-neutral education in both boys and girls’ schools. Although there have been no studies undertaken specific to Afghanistan, studies in several Islamic countries have found that the texts used in schools and their pictures tend to portray women as mothers, cooking and washing dishes.
Another issue is the general lack of teacher training. Banerjee calls this teacher “misbehavior,” noting that “most teachers haven’t gone past primary, and at the most secondary schooling.” Teachers don’t have the proper training that would eliminate biases against teaching girls in constructing their curriculum, female teachers included.
Girls are further discriminated against inside of classrooms by being forced to wear a headdress. There are no male teachers in most primary schools, and all Afghan schools are single-sex, yet a specific garb is required for young students. Banerjee says, “There’s nothing wrong with cultural practices. However, the problem is that this covering of head and hair in particular is a symbol of repression of women.”
Although some Afghans may argue that the girls want to wear the headdress, there is “sort of a brainwashing if you start with young girls coming to primary school.” The headdress requirement seems to contradict the idea of schools being institutions of free-thinking.
Ultimately, reforming and protecting education in Afghanistan is a humanitarian issue. Banerjee explains that a revamping of the educational system is necessary to deliver “socialization and transformation of norms and values,” which will build a more stable future for Afghanistan.