Overcoming the odds to get into class in Afghanistan

With nearly half of all children missing out on school, there are stories of hope behind the numbers

By Toby Fricker
School girl
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Fricker

05 June 2018

JALALABAD, Afghanistan, 5 June 2018 – “I started from zero, there was nothing and then the school became famous,” says Saif, the principal of Bibi Hawa School in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. “I once heard the story of a father who wanted to desperately send his girl here and I cried just to hear that.”

It’s easy to see why parents would want to send their children to learn here. Located just off one of Jalalabad’s hectic main streets, the school provides a sense of calm among an expanding city and ever-worsening security situation.

The facilities are good and a cadre of dedicated teachers like Saif are doing what they can to create an environment conducive to learning. Today, more than 6,500 girls attend the three shifts daily.

They’ve come a long way since late 2001 when the Taliban fled the city. “When the schools opened again everything was damaged, the buildings had collapsed and people’s faces had changed,” says Saif.

Since then, thanks to people like Saif, many girls and boys have flocked back to school. But the progress made over the past 17 years is stalling.

Saif, the principal of Bibi Hawa school in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Fricker
Saif, the principal of Bibi Hawa school in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. She has dedicated her life to the school since it lay in ruins in 2002. “It was very sad when we first came back but we got support and improved the facilities. It was amazing, at the beginning there were 50 girls and now we have 6,500 in three shifts,” she says.

Determined to learn

Nearly half of all children aged between 7 and 17 years old – 3.7 million – in Afghanistan are missing out on school, according to Out of School Children: Afghanistan Country Study. Some 60 per cent of them are girls.

The deterioration in security over the past few years, together with engrained poverty and discrimination are combining to eliminate the education gains made since late 2001.

A few kilometres from Bibi Hawa School, 15-year-old Zahra (pictured in first photograph) is answering questions in class at an ‘accelerated learning centre’. She came back to study after returning from Pakistan two years ago. Zahra’s family didn’t make it to their village, which is affected by regular bouts of conflict, so they settled for the relative safety of Jalalabad city.

“When we came back, a friend of our fathers put us up at their house,” says Zahra. “I was just working at home helping out, not doing much.”

Zahra is one of hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have returned from Pakistan over the last three years. Whilst living as a refugee, she finished Grade 1 at school before her family pulled her out of class to help at home.

But a chance encounter with 40-year old Farida, a teacher at a community-based education centre, changed her life. Farida was encouraging out of school girls to come to her class and start learning again. Zahra was determined to attend, so Farida helped convince her father and uncles that she would be in a safe space. And they agreed.

“I was so happy to start learning again and still am. When I see the teacher working I just dream that one day it will be me,” says Zahra. She’s now one of nearly 87,000 girls who attend community-based education classes that give families more control over education by organizing classes in community buildings and in some cases inside homes.  

Madena, 9, and her classmates in a ‘tented school’ on the outskirts of Jalalabad town, eastern Afghanistan.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Fricker
Madena, 9, and her classmates in a ‘tented school’ on the outskirts of Jalalabad town, eastern Afghanistan. When they arrived in Jalalabad city, Madena managed to convince her parents to send her back to school. The lack of infrastructure, including toilets, handwashing facilities and safe drinking water are one of the reasons girls often don’t attend school.

Hope behind the numbers

On the outskirts of Jalalabad city, 9-year-old Madena sits on the floor of a tent with 15 other girls in a Grade 5 class. Like Zahra, she also missed years of school when her family fled fighting around their village two years ago.

“I told my parents I like education, I want to study, let me,” she says. “I told him [her father] I can be a teacher or a doctor to help people and he eventually agreed, I was so happy.” But she also explains how many parents will not let their daughters study at her school, where conditions are basic and families worry about both security issues and the wider harassment of girls.

Despite the multiple challenges to girls’ education, there is a pervasive optimism and determination to make things better. Saif and Farida are at the forefront of those efforts, alongside girls like Zahra and Madena who are desperate to fulfil their right to education and help build a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan.     

“It’s so important because girls are part of the family and community. If girls get an education, the family does,” says Saif the school principal.


Learn more:

Out of School Children: Afghanistan Country Study

UNICEF results: Over 3.5 million children in Afghanistan received teaching and learning materials in 2017