Afghanistan's Girl Gap

Women can be elected to parliament, but six years after the fall of the Taliban less than 30% of girls are enrolled in schools. Their absence could be Afghanistan's next crisis

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Tomas Munita for TIME

Seventh-grade English teacher Najia Zamani is a rarity: only 28% of Afghan teachers are women

Nothing gives principal Suraya Sarwary more pleasure than the sound of her second-grade girls reciting a new lesson out loud. Six years ago, that sound could have gotten her executed. The Taliban had outlawed education for girls, but a few brave teachers taught them in secret. Sarwary, now the principal of Karokh District Girls High School in Afghanistan's Herat province, recalls gathering students furtively in her home and imparting lessons in whispers for fear that her neighbors might report her to the Taliban.

These days the biggest risk posed by the girls' enthusiastic recitation is that it may drown out the math lesson next door. Basira, a thin 8-year-old whose obligatory white head scarf is actually a cotton dish towel printed with Korean characters, stands before the class. She is learning to read today's lesson, which the teacher has written out on a makeshift blackboard propped up on a wobbly easel. "A vegetable should be washed before it is eaten," she reads aloud as she slowly traces each word with her fingertip. Her teacher beams, and her classmates applaud.

Karokh District Girls High School is one of the most successful in Herat. And in terms of girls' education, Herat is the most successful province in Afghanistan. Even so, conditions are far from ideal. Sarwary's tiny school doesn't have enough classrooms: second-graders huddle in a ragged tent in the courtyard, where a torn strip of khaki canvas hangs between rusting metal struts, blocking many of the girls' view of the blackboard. The fierce desert wind howls through the holes and threatens to tear the class's one textbook from the students' hands as they pass it around for reading lessons. There is no playground or running water. The toilet, a pit latrine located at the far corner of the school compound, serves 1,500 students. Only two of the 23 female teachers have graduated from high school. Half the second-grade students, ranging in age from 7 to 12, can read; the rest just recite from memory. The freedom to study is a blessing, but Sarwary knows it is not nearly enough. "Our students have talent and a passion for learning I've never seen before," says the slim, stylish 33-year-old. "But we still have problems."

The parlous status of girls' education belies one of the greatest hopes raised when the Taliban was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001: the liberation of Afghanistan's women. Yes, they can now vote, they have a quarter of the seats in parliament, and they are legally allowed to find jobs outside the home. Foreign donors and nongovernmental organizations have expended a great deal of energy and capital on building women's centers and conducting gender-awareness workshops. But more than six years since the fall of the Taliban, fewer than 30% of eligible girls are enrolled in schools, and the infrastructure is so poor that only a tiny fraction are likely to get the education they need to enjoy the fruits of emancipation.

The stakes for Afghan society are high. Every social and economic index shows that countries with a higher percentage of women with a high school education also have better overall health, a more functional democracy and increased economic performance. There's another payoff that is especially important to Afghanistan: educated women are a strong bulwark against the extremism that still plagues Afghanistan, underscored by the Jan. 14 bombing of a luxury hotel in Kabul, which killed eight. "Education is the factory that turns animals into human beings," says Ghulam Hazrat Tanha, Herat's director of education. "If women are educated, that means their children will be too. If the people of the world want to solve the hard problems in Afghanistan--kidnapping, beheadings, crime and even al-Qaeda--they should invest in [our] education."

For girls in much of the country, education remains a dream no more attainable now than it was under the Taliban. In the past six years, 3,500 new schools have been built across the country, but fewer than half of them have buildings. Most are in tents, in the shade of trees or wherever open space can be made available. This has a direct bearing on the number of girls enrolled: most Afghan families won't allow their daughters to be where they may be seen by men. "Girls in this society have certain needs," says Education Minister Hanif Atmar. "They cannot be in a tented school or in an open space with no sanitation facilities, so they simply do not go." Competing demands for government money and more obvious problems such as a raging insurgency, poppy cultivation and widespread corruption leave education to nibble from the crumbs. Atmar figures he needs $2.5 billion for the next five years just to cover basic improvements such as training teachers, printing textbooks and building 73,000 classrooms--even tented ones--that might just accommodate all Afghan schoolkids if they study in shifts.

But a five-year plan is a luxury. Atmar can't find enough money for his most pressing needs. He got only $282 million this year, $216 million short of his bare-bones operating budget. Of the 40,000 teachers the Education Ministry said were necessary to meet the demand for schooling this year, the central government has been able to budget for only 10,000.

The shortage of university-educated instructors means that the higher grades suffer the most. Najeeba Behbood, 26, an 11th-grader at Karokh High School, was lucky to land in a chemistry class taught by a former college professor. Even then, the course was pure theory: with no laboratory, the teacher had to make rough drawings on the blackboard to demonstrate the use of cathodes and anodes in producing electricity. But Behbood is happy to be in the class at all--it was a struggle persuading her parents to permit her to attend, because the professor was male.

The Taliban policy of keeping girls out of school was based on a very strong cultural prohibition against having women mix with unrelated men. Those traditions still define large swaths of Afghan society--even in urban areas like Kabul. "My family says that they would rather I be illiterate than be taught by a man," says Yasamin Rezzaie, 18, who is learning dressmaking at a women's center in Kabul. Her parents refused to let her go to her neighborhood school because some of the teachers are male. Both her parents are illiterate, and they don't see the need for her to learn to read when the risk of meeting unrelated men is so high.

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