New campaign to encourage girls into school

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

KABUL, 14 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - A national campaign to boost girls' enrollment was launched in Afghanistan over the weekend as the country prepares for a new school year at the end of March.

“This is a very important day as a week ago we celebrated 8 March International Women's Day and today we are launching an education campaign [targeting girls],” Noor Mohammad Qarqeen, minister of education, said at the official ceremony to launch the campaign on Saturday.

The public awareness campaign led by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is the result of substantive research undertaken throughout the country in 2004, the agency said.

“The most important thing with this campaign is that the MoE has made a decision to try and make girls’ right to education a priority,” Brent Aasen, UNICEF representative in the country, told IRIN.

SCOPE OF THE ISSUE

According to UNICEF, on average 60 percent of girls under 11 - more than 1 million - are still not attending lessons.

Out of some 5 million children enrolled in schools throughout the country girls made up just 35 percent, the World Bank said in its recent report on education in Afghanistan.

But there are big regional differences in attendance levels. In major cities like Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Badakshan, the situation is better, with about 50 percent of girls going to schools in 2004, the MoE said.

The repressive Taliban regime, which came to power in 1996, banned the education of girls. They began to trickle back to classrooms only after the US-supported Northern Alliance (NA) ousted the regime in 2001.

Despite significant progress having been made since then, UNICEF said that the main impediments to girls at school included resource issues, like a lack of female teachers and inadequate school facilities, along with some socio-cultural factors hampering the process.

Schools in the country remain segregated by gender and boys have to be taught be men and girls by female teachers.

UNICEF research carried out in 2004 found that girls’ education was still undervalued in many communities - the issue the campaign was set to specifically address.

SITUATION MORE DIFFICULT IN SOUTH

In five Afghan provinces, at least 90 percent of school-age girls are not attending school. “These are the provinces in the south and on the border with Pakistan, where it is still a tradition among families to keep their daughters from school,” Aasen said.

Nader, a young man who has moved from the southern province of Kandahar to the capital Kabul, told IRIN that education of girls in the south was still a major problem.

“Girls are only allowed to go to mosques between five and eight years old to learn the holy book of Qoran. When they turn nine [the age they are considered to be approaching puberty] they are not allowed to go out of their houses as parents believe that they should not be seen by other men, meaning that they cannot go to school either,” he explained. “The most difficult situation is in the province of Oruzgan, where the former leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was from.”

UNICEF acknowledged changing attitudes would be a tall order. “It will probably take some time to change this. But we believe when the message comes from the highest levels in the government, as well as from many families who have had a good experience with educating their daughters, we will be on the right track for change,” Aasen said.

CO-OPTING RELIGIOUS LEADERS

“Using the core messages that an educated girl is a source of pride for an Afghan family, the campaign strategy will focus on key people of influence in the community, including religious leaders, teachers, community elders and parents,” Edward Carwardine, a spokesman for UNICEF Afghanistan, said.

Shugofa Sahar, a 12-year-old student at the Aysha-e-Durani High School for Girls, one of two high schools for girls in Kabul, told IRIN that according to Islam it was necessary for both girls and boys to go to school and study. “All the girls and boys from Afghanistan should go to school in order to rebuild and develop our country,” she said.

A range of printed materials and radio and television ads were expected to start to filter out across the country from Saturday, accompanied by UNICEF-supported training sessions for key groups from communities, NGOs and government agencies.

“UNICEF this year will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the minister himself has committed to use the mosques and 75,000 religious leaders working with him to get the message out to the Afghan people that girls are welcome in school and families should feel comfortable in educating their daughters,” Aasen maintained.

SLOW CHANGE

But there are signs of change. Mohammad, 33, a driver in Kabul, told IRIN that most of the girls in his village not far from the capital could not go to school several years ago as there were no education facilities in the district. “But there has now been a school in the village for a couple of years and most of the girls go there, including my two school-age daughters,” he said, adding that the majority of parents in his village were positive about the idea of having girls educated.

“Our country had been at war for more than 20 years and there was no education, people’s minds became greatly affected by the years of war. In order to change this, people need education,” he maintained.

Meanwhile, UNICEF’s partnership agreement with the MoE, signed this year and worth some US $19 million, is expected to support the establishment of community-based classes for up to 500,000 girls in villages with no formal school, enhanced teacher training programmes for 25,000 primary grade teachers, curriculum development, and the supply of education materials to more than 4.5 million children and 105,000 teachers. The new information campaign will complement these practical measures.

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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