Afghanistan's Journey to Literacy

11/20/2012 10:12 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Kabul, Afghanistan -- To describe conditions at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) school in the Hewadawal refugee camp in Kabul as Spartan would be an understatement. The boys' classroom consists of a single mud wall and a canvas roof. A shoulder-high mud wall -- an effort to provide a modicum of privacy -- surrounds the classroom for girls. There are no chairs or desks; a small blackboard is on an easel. The 20 or so students sit on straw mats laid on the bare ground.

But for a school that first opened in July, it's a good start.

Despite the harsh conditions, the students are rapt and attentive. The girls especially seem thrilled to be here. "They love it," says their teacher, 19-year-old Fahima, a recent graduate of Kabul University. "It's an incredible opportunity for them because most have never been to school."

Over on the boys' side, the teacher, 53-year-old Serrajudin, agrees. "We may not have furniture, electricity or heating, but these students are keen to learn."

And this is just one of hundreds of local schools that humanitarian organizations have started across Afghanistan this year. The schools use the same textbooks as government-run schools and teach a similar curriculum, but they reach many school age-children who hadn't previously attended classes.

Boosting school enrollment is crucial to Afghanistan's development. The country's literacy rate of 28 percent is one of lowest in the world. The literacy rate for Afghan women is only 12 percent compared to 43 percent for men. In rural areas, where approximately 75 percent of all Afghans live, the situation is even more acute, with an estimated 93 percent of women and 65 percent of men lacking basic reading and writing skills. Historically, there have been formidable challenges to increasing school enrollment. In most families, children were expected to work at home or in the fields. And even had parents wanted to send their children to school, during the past three decades of war and conflict it was often too dangerous to do so. Education declined precipitously during the years of Taliban rule. By the time the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001, only one million Afghan children attended school. Today, UNICEF estimates more than eight million children regularly attend classes.

This remarkable progress is due in part to a concerted education outreach program, including one being conducted by the IRC, the Agha Khan Foundation, CARE and Catholic Relief Services. For its part, the IRC has enrolled almost 8,000 first grade students in 263 schools throughout the country this year. Next year the IRC will enroll an additional 2,000 first graders. Over the next three years, the outreach program will reach tens of thousands of children, most of whom might otherwise never open a textbook.

Still, challenges remain. Many schools are in areas where violence is a daily threat and opposition to education remains. Attacks on schools remain a frequent occurrence, forcing teachers and students to take precautions. Most of the new schools maintain an extremely low profile, often comprising a single room in a village home. Teachers are usually from the village and are known to the community. Parents are encouraged to be engaged as well. They're involved in education, security and providing classrooms. As one teacher told me, "Community acceptance assures success."

A positive sign is that more and more parents across the country are encouraging their children, both boys and girls, to attend. At another camp for Afghan refugees who have returned to Kabul, a mother held up her newborn boy. "School is good," she said as she nodded at her tiny son. "If he's educated he'll become a doctor." Her seven-year-old daughter Shenama is in first grade at the camp school. She nodded shyly when asked about class. "I go every day," she said.

Nelson Mandela once said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." It's particularly true for Afghanistan, where an entire generation has known nothing but conflict. Education is bringing change across the country, but there's a long and bumpy road ahead.

Afghanistan’s Journey to Literacy

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