“One winter morning last year, when everything was covered in snow, I came to class and no one was there. That’s when I saw Khadija walking slowly towards the school carrying her backpack,” Maryam, Khadija’s teacher, tells Sahraa Karimi of UNICEF. “She fell a few times until she finally reached the building, but she still came. I could barely hold back my tears. She is a brave girl.”
Khadija, 13 and partially paralyzed at birth, walks 50 minutes every day in order to get to school regardless of the weather. According to her, her disability does not serve as an obstacle; it serves as a motivation.
Like most girls her age, Khadija must go through extensive efforts for her education; she was unable to attend school at an earlier age due to lack of schools in her own community. As soon as an Accelerated Learning Centre opened up nearby, Khadija took advantage of the opportunity.
“I am so happy that we have this school in our village. Maybe one day I can become a doctor, or work with something that can help my parents and other people,” says Khadija.
Compared to other young girls in Afghanistan, Khadija is considered lucky.
In Khadija’s country, schools are often used for military purposes.
According to a report entitled “Education Under Attack” produced by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, schools in Afghanistan are often used as barracks to house soldiers, bases to mount security operations, fighting positions, prisons or detention centres, interrogation or torture sites, and places to store weapons. In Afghanistan, brings out the report, the Ministry of Education reported that more than 590 schools were closed in vulnerable areas as of May 2012, compared to 800 or more in 2009.
In response to the dangers posed by this occupation, parents often take their children out of schools or schools are closed all together. Such facilities are often left too damaged to be used again without significant renovations.
While one may be ready to assume that the Taliban are responsible for all of the attacks on schools, this is not the case.
In a comprehensive report on Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch pointed out that “both the Taliban and The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) increasingly used schools for military purposes” and that “such abuses… deprived many children, particularly girls, of access to education.”
With both sides of the war, including parts of the government of Afghanistan, using schools for their own purposes, there are few left who can truly aid these children in accessing vital educational tools.
According to UNICEF, some 47% of men in Afghanistan can read and write, while for women, that number dwindles to just 15%.
The lower literacy rate among women and girls prevents Afghanistan’s approach to tackling larger issues, such as that of gender equality. Women are reduced to stereotypical roles because they lack the weapon of an education to defend themselves against the injustice.
And though increasing numbers of students are becoming unable to access proper instruction, there are also increasing numbers of those willing to aid in the resistance against decaying education, like Freshta, a recent high school graduate who now teaches 25 children in a newly established school in Balkh.
“Educating children and helping to empower my community is my dream because children are our country’s future,” Freshta tells Najia Ahmadi of UNICEF. She began teaching children in twelfth grade, when she was selected by her principal because of her high exam grades.
Freshta herself went to a high school in a nearby town that required her to commute over thirty minutes daily, giving her first hand experience with the hardships of trying to get a good education.
“I faced so many difficulties to go to school. It was very far away. I dreamed to have a school nearby to my village so that even small children could attend the classes,” remembers Freshta, “Now that we have a community-based school inside our village and I teach the children, it feels like a big accomplishment.”
Freshta aims to become a professional teacher someday; she was inspired by her own teachers, and she promised herself that she would transfer everything that she has learned from them to the children that she teaches.
Freshta, like other teachers in Afghanistan, faces no shortage of threats when teaching her students.
Human Rights Watch reported in “Lessons in Terror”, that there have been reports of at least seventeen assassinations of teachers and education officials in 2005 and 2006, and “even more common have been threatening ‘night letters,’… warning [students] against attending school and making credible threats of violence.”
“Lessons in Terror” emphasized that the impact of an education goes far beyond simply knowing how to read; education also facilitates many other socially important activities. “Girls not educated today,” mentions the report, “are the missing teachers, administrators, and policymakers of tomorrow.”
And while these future teachers, administrators, and policymakers of tomorrow may be unaware of their fate, overwhelming numbers of them have taken it upon themselves to enroll into school.
In 2008, 6.3 million children were enrolled in school in Afghanistan, the largest school population in Afghanistan’s history.
For many, an education holds much more promise than simply learning how to spell. It can provide them with a sense of community and a support system that will teach them how to survive, how to build themselves up from the ashes that war has left their homes and their families in.
The future has the ability to hold so much for youths like Khadija and Freshta; all they need is one good teacher, someone to offer a minuscule yet thoroughly promising glimmer of hope by being willing to make immense investments in education for our future by sacrificing themselves in the present.