In Afghanistan, education must take precedence over politics | Education

Afghanistan is facing a critical moment in which international assistance is urgently needed to prevent the collapse of its education system. Advances in education have come to symbolise the achievements in Afghanistan’s reconstruction over the last 20 years, with more than 9 million children enrolled in school.

However, according to UNICEF, there are currently more than 4 million out-of-school children, with more than half of them being girls. The complex economic and humanitarian crisis that is engulfing the country is expected to get worse in the coming year and threatens to undo the progress of the previous two decades. Hundreds of thousands of teachers have gone unpaid for almost six months, with teachers in Herat province protesting to demand that the Taliban pay their salaries.

This fast-deteriorating situation threatens to trigger one of the worst education emergencies in the world. UNHCR has warned that nearly 23 million people are suffering from extreme levels of hunger, with nine million at risk of famine. With Afghan livelihoods threatened, many Afghan families will inevitably be forced into choosing survival over pursuing an education. There is a real risk that the quantity and quality of education will drop precipitously, with the madrassa re-emerging as the main form of schooling in Afghanistan and a lost generation of Afghan children being denied educational opportunities.

To mitigate the crisis, education must be prioritised over politics. The sanctity of education is a deeply-held social value, in part rooted in the centrality of education in Islam. “Read, in the name of your Lord,” is the first verse of the Quran that was revealed to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

With the Taliban in power, it is undeniable that upholding the right to education is ultimately the group’s responsibility. However, given the scale of the challenge, international support is urgently needed. The following messages should be heeded by Afghan and international actors as they work together to resolve the educational crisis.

First, while some of the erratic statements issued by the Taliban about girls’ education or the unsuitability of school structures for gender segregation have given the impression that its arrival resulted in the educational crisis, the current situation is rooted deep structural and long-standing challenges that predate the Taliban. These systemic weaknesses include but are not limited to low educational quality, cultural restrictions on girls’ access to education, the Afghan government’s low capacity and reliance on aid, and the difficulties in incentivising trained teachers to relocate to rural and isolated areas.

Second, these pre-existing conditions limit what the Taliban could be reasonably expected to achieve in a short time-frame. The complete return of girls to school is not only a top demand of the international community but a universal right and the engine for the development of the country. The international community is right to fear the Taliban may restrict educational freedom for women and girls, as it did when it ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. However, following its return to power, the Taliban has challenged such fears, pointing to the fact that girls in the provinces of Kunduz, Balkh, and Sar-e-Pul have returned to school.

The diverging paths of education access in the north and south of Afghanistan have been a cause for concern, with many observers asking why girls cannot attend secondary schools in Kandahar, Helmand, and neighbouring provinces. Yet, the same observers would do well to recognise the complex cultural issues shaping the environment for educational access and equity in Afghanistan. For example, even before the Taliban takeover, the high degree of cultural variation in Afghanistan inhibited the government’s efforts to secure schooling for girls in the more conservative southern provinces. The Taliban government will also face these obstacles, but there remains room for dialogue and manoeuvring to ensure positive development outcomes for Afghan boys and girls.

Third, and most crucially, Afghanistan’s education system requires massive foreign aid to stay afloat. There are approximately 220,000 teachers in the Afghan public education system. With such a sizeable payroll, the Ministry of Education accounts for a huge percentage of the government budget in Afghanistan. The fact that Afghan teachers have not received their salaries for almost six months is the single largest barrier to resuming the normal educational process.

While the banking crisis in Afghanistan makes external funding of education budgets more complicated, international donors and NGOs could support Afghan schools directly by covering salary costs, procuring supplies, and investing in better and safer facilities and infrastructure. With female staff accounting for about one third of Afghanistan’s teaching force, supporting their salaries would be a more constructive and direct way for Western donors to support Afghan women in the here and now than repeating the same lines regarding girls’ education and playing to their domestic audiences.

Fourth, an emphasis on the quality of education in Afghanistan is just as important as expanding education. The major disruption to teacher development and shortage of teachers requires the school system to rapidly increase its capacity and implement a new nationwide plan of on-the-job training. This project could best be overseen by the United Nations with the support of leading regional organisations with expertise in educational development, such as the Doha-based Education Above All.

There are indications that the Taliban is open to constructive engagement on quality education and fears that it would pursue rushed, haphazard and ideological curriculum reform have proven unfounded. Taliban representatives cite their resumption of a UNICEF textbook delivery programme initiated under the previous regime as a sign of the continuity of policy and international cooperation in education.

Finally, education in Afghanistan has suffered directly from attacks during two decades of war. As a result of airstrikes, shelling, and the use of improvised explosive devices, teachers and students were injured or killed and schools were damaged. For example, 12 schools in one area of Baghlan province were occupied or used for military purposes in 2016 and during US airstrikes on Kunduz in 2017, schools were also destroyed.

While we know conflict impacted Afghanistan’s education system, no comprehensive data is available on the number of schools in Afghanistan that have been damaged as a result. Therefore, civil society and nongovernmental organisations and international agencies must gain access to this information in order to assess the magnitude of challenges and devise strategies for rebuilding education.

I recently met with Taliban government officials, ministers from the former government, diplomats from donor countries, and NGO representatives to discuss the challenges facing the education sector in Afghanistan. Unlike sectors such as banking or the judiciary where significant numbers of professionals fled Afghanistan since August, teachers have largely remained in the country.

The Taliban expressed a willingness to engage with the international community on full access to education and welcomed efforts to verify and monitor progress to enroll women and girls in school at all levels. In line with the Humanitarian Plus approach, in a recent op-ed, I argued that education and health are two sectors in which Western aid agencies can open channels of communication and coordination with the Taliban without the need for formal recognition.

One strategic entry point for such educational cooperation is through the academic calendar in Afghanistan. With winter fast approaching, many schools in the north and east of Afghanistan will shut down until March 2022. This term scheduling affords an opportunity to focus educational assistance on those schools currently open. Such a phased approach is one way to think more strategically by disaggregating Afghanistan’s education crisis by province, location, and sub-sector, which can enable targeted response and render a major undertaking seem less overwhelming.

The recent warning by aid organisations that a million Afghan children could die this winter makes it more urgent to make education assistance an important part of the Humanitarian Plus approach. Far from being peripheral to a humanitarian response, education is vital to integrated responses that capitalise on schools’ ability to serve as focal points of emergency aid distribution, including through school meals, child protection, and emergency preparedness.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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