Basic education and gender equality

Community-based schools bring hope to Afghan girls

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2004/Nguyen
Eight-year-old Zakira is one of 60 girls attending a community-based school in the village of Hussain Khel, Bagrami district.

by Phuong Nguyen

BAGRAMI, Afghanistan, 8 February 2005 - Eight-year old Zakira is a typical girl from Hussain Khel village in Bagrami district, north of Kabul. She and her five siblings have never enjoyed a day of schooling as there were no schools around their village.

Access to schools is the most important factor affecting school enrolment rate in Afghanistan, particularly for girls. Parents have cited this, along with lack of transportation and security, as major barriers to sending their children to school. Faced with this problem, education authorities and UNICEF have adopted a simple philosophy - if children are unable to get to the school, the school must be brought to them.

To help children like Zakira, UNICEF and the Afghan Ministry of Education founded community-based schools at the end of 2004. 50,000 children between the ages of 7 and 12 in communities where no schools currently exist are being educated.

Zakira first heard about the community-based school through the loud speaker of the village mosque. “I was so happy when I heard the news. I ran immediately as quickly as possible home to tell all my family about the new school. They were very happy for me because at last I wouldn’t have to travel far from home to attend school.”

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2004/Nguyen
Children attending the community-based school in the village of Hussain Khel. UNICEF provides school material for the children and training for their teacher.

The religious leader, or mullah, plays a key role in Afghan society . Working closely with the local Department of Education, UNICEF encourages such figureheads, along with village elders and other notable personalities, to mobilize communities to establish non-formal schools in their village.

Classrooms are established in mosques, private homes and other existing venues. The community also plays an active role to identify the most suitable person as a teacher – usually a respected, educated woman who receives additional training from UNICEF. Basic materials such as floor mats, stationery and textbooks are provided by UNICEF to the students and teachers and the curriculum is recognized by the Ministry of Education.

In the dimly-lit single room of her teacher’s home, Zakira huddles amongst some 60 girls. It is the long winter vacation for most Afghan schools, but these community-based classes have already started. One small stove in the room brings warmth to the girls.

Despite the simple conditions, Zakira and her classmates are eager to learn. Covered in a brown head scarf, she raises her hand high to answer a question. Zakira likes her teacher, who she considers kind and intelligent. She too would like to become a teacher one day. Asked why, she answers: “It is enjoyable to be able to help others.”

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2004/Nguyen
A young girl shows off an exercise book provided by UNICEF at the community-based school in Hussain Khel village.

Zakira attends classes for three hours a day, similar to students in formal schools. Each day, she returns home to share her lessons with her two older sisters, aged 13 and 14. Unfortunately, as her sisters are older, their father is less willing to send them to the school – fearing for their safety. “I wish they could come with me to school and see how wonderful it is to be able to learn something new everyday,” says Zakira. “I share all my notebooks and textbooks with them so that they too could have an education.”

In 2005, UNICEF plans to increase the number of girls attending community-based schools to 500,000, helping to ensure that girls’ rights to a basic education are fulfilled.

To further the mission of education children around the world, on 7-9 February, an international conference held in Bangkok brought together education experts and officials from governments and the United Nations to map out strategies to educate every child in South Asia.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy encouraged the leaders to embrace the concept of schools as safe havens and child-friendly spaces. Ms. Bellamy also called on South Asian leaders to capitalize on opportunities to improve educational systems in tsunami-affected areas and throughout the region.



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