Pupils as Pawns: Plundered education in Ghor
Empty classrooms, fake girls’ schools, teachers’ salaries siphoned off by warlords: in Ghor province in Afghanistan’s west, the shadows of strongmen loom large and schools, too, have become pawns in the power struggle between rival factions. AAN’s Obaid Ali has visited this remote, poor and conflict-ridden province and – in this second of three dispatches (see the first on security here) – looks at the education situation. He even finds the working schools lacking and parents sending their kids to madrasas instead.
Ahangaran, only 35 kilometres outside of Ghor’s capital of Chaghcheran, has a proper school building, unlike many other villages in the province and country. There are classrooms with large windows, chairs and tables, and the walls are whole and white washed. It is the middle of the school year, but on this morning in early June 2013 only five teachers and about 20 students show up. In some classes, teachers stand in front of only three pupils. One of them tells AAN that the school is supposed to teach grades one to 12, with a total of 767 students – 494 boys and 273 girls. Thirteen teachers are supposed to teach three shifts a day, each one for three hours. But when asked where all these teachers and students were that day, AAN heard conflicting stories. One teacher said that there was a wedding party in the village, and most faculty members and students attended. Another one said that the students had gone off to collect firewood and take their animals to pasture. The teachers had followed suit, teaching students while they worked.
Both stories might have been excuses. The latter would prove at least some interest among the teachers and students in education (although the outcome of this kind of teaching is probably questionable). It cannot be excluded that teachers think of creative measures like teaching on pasture, in an environment where families often have to opt for survival first, then education. Such eagerness is rare in Ghor’s education system, though. Extreme poverty and startling insecurity provide an unhealthy mix in the province, preventing parents from sending their children to school, teachers from wanting to work in rural areas and government officials from insisting on getting enough qualified teachers. According to a UNICEF study in 2005 that compared key indicators from all (then) 32 (today 34) provinces, poor, remote and mountainous Ghor ranked 28 all over, with a particularly bad situation for girls and women. The female literacy rate was then estimated at three per cent. The more recent Ghor Provincial Brief from June 2011 gathered by Ministry of Economy and World Bank puts it still only at six per cent while the national average is at 13 per cent (UNICEF), or according to other sources, even at 21 per cent (a May draft of the Ministry of Education’s “National Education Strategic Plan 2014-2020” that AAN saw) or, “among young women”, even at 22,2 per cent (Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey from 2010/11 by government and UNICEF).
The overall literacy is not much better. The Literacy Department of the Ministry of Education, in its National Literacy Action Plan 2012 – 2015, states that the overall literacy rate in Ghor is at only 18.5 per cent (the national average being at 33 per cent according to the draft of the “Education’s National Education Strategic Plan 2014-2020” AAN saw or at 39 per cent according to UNICEF), meaning that more than eight out of ten Ghoris are illiterate. That puts Ghor among the ten provinces with the lowest literacy rates in the country, on par with notoriously insecure and poor provinces like Badghis, Faryab, Zabul, Nimruz or Uruzgan.
According to the head of Ghor’s education department, there are 814 schools across the province. Most of them don’t have proper buildings. However, this number would still mean an increase of 202 additional schools in Ghor since 2008 when the Ministry of Education reported that Ghor had a total of 612 schools. The Afghan education sector has undisputably made great strides in the past years (1) – but the gains are in danger of being reversed in the current upsurge of violence in many rural areas, obstructing access to basic services. In Ghor, community members complain about schools regularly closing down due to armed conflicts between a large variety of parties such as insurgents groups and illegal militias (see earlier AAN dispatch here, see also here). (Recently, the deputy governor of Ghor province told AAN there were 182 such groups.)
When AAN asked Ghori officials about how many schools were currently closed, no one seemed to have an overview of concrete numbers and current cases. Jawad Reza’i, the provincial director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, guessed that more than 50 per cent of the schools are currently not functioning due to security issues. Sebghatullah Akbari, the head of the provincial Education Department, on the other hand, insisted that Ghor’s schools are working and only a few of them, in the districts Pasaband, Shahrak and Charsada and in some parts of Chaghcheran city like Murghab “sometimes temporarily closed due to conflicts among illegal militias”. (AAN reported in its last dispatch on Ghor that the Taleban “rule unchallenged in four of Ghor’s ten districts, Shahrak, Sagher, Charsada, Pasaband, as well as parts of Chaghcheran”; these districts coincide with most of the ones mentioned by Mr. Akbari.)
Trained teachers in short supply, their salaries for the taking
Another problem is the lack of qualified teachers. In 2011, the Ministry of Education stated that countrywide “68 per cent of general education teachers” did “not meet standard qualifications for trained professional teachers (grade 14 graduate of Teacher Education Colleges (TTC), or their qualification is lower than 12th grade” (see also here). In insecure rural areas, the rate becomes worse.
Ghor has a teacher training college whose director, Fazel Haq Fayeq, claims that today 500 to 700 students graduate annually. He also says, though, that many of the students attending are either government employees who need a higher degree to be able to apply for better positions or young people who want the certificate, but do not actually want to teach in Ghor. They find the pay too low and the risk too high. He also told AAN that it was often not the Education Department that appointed teachers but local strongmen – in order to keep control over the key positions in a community. “And the MoE is not taking corrective measures to appoint professional teachers”, he says. Also, the ministry’s habit of offering positions only three or four months after graduation made things worse. “In the meantime even those graduates who want to work as teachers have found other jobs”, he says.
As a result of both trends, many teachers in Ghor’s rural areas are not professionally trained but mostly Madrasa-educated, meaning they only attended one of the many religious schools that, particularly in rural areas, often “beat” the government ones. Madrasas usually teach the Quran and some reading and writing but none of the more modern subjects such as math, sciences or foreign languages.
This, in addition to the violence in Ghor’s communities, has prevented many parents from sending their children to school. One father of five, Muhammad Khan from Dolina district – 70 kilometres to the west of Ghor’s capital, Chaghcheran, and one of the most notorious in terms of conflict – told AAN that the teachers in his village had no experience teaching and that “there is no difference in sending my kids to a local mosque or to school; the teachers and the curriculum are both the same.” Children learned a little bit of reading and writing but otherwise religious topics only, for example how to pray or how to clean the body before praying.
Muhammad Khan says his children now went to the madrasa as it started earlier in the morning and only went on for one hour whereas school lasted for three hours. This way the children could help more at home.
No girl qualified
A challenge within the challenge is also the lack of female teachers. The Ministry of Education stated that for 2011 “there are no qualified female teachers in 230 districts out of 412 rural and urban districts. As a result, retention and continuation of girls’ education in secondary grades are affected. There are no girls in upper secondary grades in 159 districts”. Again, Muhammad Khan provides a good example, having two daughters and being open to girls’ education. Dolina district, Khan told AAN, did not have a single female teacher. “If there was”, he says, “I would send my daughters to school.” But as it is, his daughters would be taught by men – something that Afghan parents deem inappropriate from a certain age on for girls, which countrywide causes more than (conservatively estimated) two million girls to not go to school at all and high dropout rates after the third and fourth grades.(2)
AIHRC director Reza’i adds that girls’ schools in Taleban dominated districts were often deserted. The education system existed on paper only. “No classes, no professionally trained teachers – and by the end of each year, fake results of schools exams are being submitted in order to pretend the schools are functioning and to keep the salaries flowing”, he says. In two districts, Pasaband and Taiwara, “none of the girls’ schools ever functioned”, something that Anjila Sharifi, member of the provincial council, confirms for Pasaband. In Taiwara, she believes, at least the ones in the district centre are open. According to the figures of the provincial Education Department, Pasaband should have five girls’ schools for 593 girls and Taiwara, 23 girls’ schools for 4,807 female students.
Khwaja Hussain Daneshyar, the district governor of Dolina, tells a story that supports this sad state of the educational situation for women and girls. Recently, an NGO sponsored an opportunity for females from Dolina to join a two-year midwifery training course in the capital. “But in the whole district, with a population of 47,000, we failed to find three girls that met the educational requirements for the training”, Daneshyar says. The district itself, he says, had 42 boys’ and girls’ schools, but just seven professional teachers, only ten permanent school buildings – and no female educational staff.
In addition, it seems that teachers’ salaries are being misused, partly siphoned off by local warlords to equip illegal militias. The Institute for War & Peace Reporting looked at the province last year and reported “that at least 280 million Afghani, approximately 5.8 million US dollars, from the education ministry’s budget for Ghor province has been spent to little effect, and in some cases handed over to local power-brokers. Only 20 per cent of the provincial education budget goes to staff who turn up and teach in the schools. The rest is either paid to absentee teachers, or appropriated in their names by education and law-enforcement personnel”. Although it is not clear where these specific numbers come from, people from Ghor tell stories supporting the gist. As Sebghatullah Akbari, head of the provincial Education Department, says, “If a militia commander takes the salary of a school teacher, there is no one to support [the latter]. Even the police chief says he does not have the power to stand up against these people.”
Turf wars in schools
Local strongmen in Ghor insert themselves in any new construction or development project on the lands they command to keep a tight grip on their territory. This extends to the building of schools. “Schools are considered the private property of local warlords”, says Muhammad Hassan Hakimi, a civil society activist in Chaghcheran. For example, he cites a school in Farahrod village in Dolina built on the “border” of territory controlled by rival local warlords. Each commander believes the school to be his. This stalemate and the position of each commander that he alone can give permission for anyone to teach in the area has led to the school laying fallow eight years after it was built, said the civil society activist.
An aid worker in Ghor, who wishes to remain anonymous, reported a similar standoff with a highly destructive outcome. In 2010, he said, the provincial education director had permitted the establishment of a school for the village of Khakestarak, in the Allahyar area, 130 kilometres from Chaghcheran city. A local man named Abdulsamad, a local commander, literate but not a teacher, was appointed to run it. According to the aid worker, Abdulsamad, along with his cronies, put the teachers’ salaries into his own pockets and took advantage of the occasional UN or NGO deliveries for the children (incentives to come to school), such as wheat, cooking oil or high nutrition cookies. The situation got out of hand when a rival of Abdulsamad sought to seek a share of these funds, setting off a battle in Khakestarak. The small village was severely damaged, locals report “many people killed” – they could not provide concrete numbers – and the remaining residents had to immigrate to other villages.
When asked about these issues in Ghor, Amanullah Iman, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, responded broadly, saying that the education sector in Afghanistan had dramatically improved over the course of the past 12 years. He went on to state that the Ministry recruited 12,000 teachers a year and that 42 per cent of the country’s teachers were professionally trained. Furthermore, of the 16,600 schools operating in the country, only 405 to 410 were closed because of insecurity. He did not want to comment on Ghor’s specific situation and would not pick up his telephone again.
Neither the central nor local governments have been able to wrest control of this sector from illegal armed groups who use funds and infrastructure for education for their personal gains. If the local authorities do not overcome their passivity and the central government fails to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to address the fundamental challenges for education in Ghor, this will help the armed groups and Taleban to take over the province completely – further narrowing prospects for Ghor’s next generation.
(1) The Afghan government’s and UNICEF’s AMICS survey published in 2012 states that “Afghanistan has made steady progress in reconstituting the education sector over the past decade. Most students who begin primary school complete primary school. The challenge lies in raising primary attendance rates beyond the rate of 55 per cent, and in ensuring a far greater proportion of primary graduates go on to start and complete a secondary level education. In particular, there is a sharp drop in girls’ school attendance after primary school.”
For graphs illustrating the progress for general education from 2009 to 2011 see also this report of the Ministry of Education, page 9.
It must be said, though, that ministry and other figures should be taken with a grain of salt. In general, there seems to be a great many different estimates regarding education challenges and progress. This has, among others, to do with the fact that they are based on different absolute population figures (no current census). This is why we often chose to display the whole range available, knowing that looking at too many figures can also be annoying.
(2) The AMICS report of government and UN agencies from 2011 also specifies (on page 122) that the “gender parity for primary school is 0.74, indicating a difference in the primary school attendance between girls and boys, with 74 girls attending primary school for every 100 boys. The indicator drops significantly by the secondary level, to 0.49. The disadvantage to girls is particularly pronounced in the Southern region (0.47 for primary education and 0.16 for secondary education), as well as among children living in the poorest households (0.62 for primary education and 0.23 for secondary education) and in rural areas (0.69 for primary education and 0.39 for secondary education).”