[KABUL] Girls can attend separate schools provided students and teachers wear the hijab, and the curriculum and education environment are in keeping with religious and cultural values, Taliban commanders have told elders in southern Afghanistan.
“The Taliban have told us that they are not against schools for girls,” said Haji Nazar Mohmmad, a tribal elder in the southern province of Kandahar’s Spin Boldak District.
Local people in Marof, Daman and Panjwaye districts said they had received similar assurances from the insurgents.
The Taliban appear to be changing their attitude to female education, according to the Ministry of Education (MoE) which said there had been no opposition to the reopening of dozens of schools in the past year.
“All Afghans, including those in armed opposition to the government, support education for the children of this country and we see no opposition from anyone to girls’ education,” said Abdul Sabour Ghofrani, an MoE spokesman in Kabul.
The Taliban’s self-proclaimed government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has not publicly confirmed its policy shift. Girls were banned from education and women were prohibited from outdoor activities during Taliban rule in 1996-2001.
“If this is true, it’s a major step forward and we truly welcome it,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, told IRIN, adding that it was time for communities to get their girls to school.
Many schools reopen in south
“We have reopened 52 schools in different parts of Kandahar Province in the past 10 months and will soon reopen 50 additional schools in several districts in the very near future,” said Najibullah Ahmadi, the provincial director of education.
As schools reopen, thousands of girls have reportedly enrolled in less than a year, said Ahmadi, adding that there were 120,000 boys and 42,000 girls at 234 functioning schools in the province.
Kandahar was the military and political capital of the Taliban in 1995-2001 and has emerged as an insurgent stronghold since 2004. US-NATO forces have launched major counterinsurgency operations there in the past three years.
With the support of local councils and tribal elders, MoE officials said, scores of schools had also been reopened in several other insecure provinces across the country. Hundreds of schools were shut down in 2007-2009 following a series of attacks, and over 400 schools are still dysfunctional, according to MoE.
Over 500 attacks on schools were reported in 2010 in which 169 pupils, teachers or school employees were killed and 527 wounded, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). However, it is not clear what proportion of attacks targeted girls’ schools.
Dozens of reported attacks took place during the September 2010 parliamentary elections when schools were used as polling stations, despite warnings against using schools in a political process.
Militants have targeted female students and teachers in different ways: At least 15 schoolgirls and female teachers were attacked with acid in Kandahar Province on 12 November 2008, and two schoolgirls were shot dead in June 2007 in Logar Province.
There has been speculation in some quarters that the MoE and tribal councils, which often act as intermediaries between the government and the Taliban, may have struck a deal on girls’ education.
Local NGO Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) has called on Education Minister Farouq Wardak, who was quoted by the British Guardian newspaper on 13 January as saying “the Taliban's leadership is prepared to drop its ban on girls' schools,” to give further details.
“The international community must ensure that any understanding with the Taliban on females’ education would not compromise the values and principles enshrined in the constitution of Afghanistan,” said a 9 February ARM statement.
However, MoE spokesman Ghofrani quashed speculation that any deal had been struck with MoE: “No conditions have been exchanged and no deal has been made.”
Meanwhile, no one is suggesting there is a problem having separate schools for boys and girls.
“In many parts of the world there are segregated schools. The Catholics have segregated schools for girls and boys and that is not a major issue as long as they give an education,” said the UN’s Coomaraswamy.
“What we would be concerned about is the curriculum that is being taught and if it is going to be sponsored by the Ministry of Education it has to meet certain minimum standards to get our approval,” she said.
“Taliban stipulations that female education be in accordance with Islam are entirely in line with our culture and traditions,” said Ahmadi, head of Kandahar’s education department.
Abdul Sataar Baryalai, director of the NGO Loy Kandahar Reconstruction Organization which runs 100 community-based classrooms for children in different parts of Kandahar Province, said he had no problems with the Taliban.
“Our classrooms are funded by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other NGOs and we have female students and teachers,” Baryalai told IRIN, though he pointed out that “grown-up girls” were not attending higher education “due to cultural restrictions”.
“One of the problems facing girls’ education is a shortage of female teachers particularly in insecure provinces,” said MoE spokesman Ghofrani, adding that fewer than 38 percent of the total number of 175,000 teachers in the country were female.
Other challenges include building more schools, providing sufficient security, and changing parental attitudes towards the education of girls.