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AFGHANISTAN: Over 300 schools closed in south

Lashkar Gah, 2 October 2006 (IRIN) - Schools in southern Afghanistan are closing in large numbers due to pressure and intimidation from the resurgent Taliban movement, leading to an education crisis in the volatile region, officials say.

Almost 150 educational institutes have closed in Kandahar province alone, according to the education ministry. Regionally more than 50 schools have been attacked this year.

“Some 145 schools are currently closed in Kandahar and more than 70,000 students, including boys and girls, are deprived of education,” said Mahbobullah Khan, an official from Kandahar’s education department.

Marzia, who was studying at the girl’s high school in Laskhkar Gah, provincial capital of Helmand province, gave up her studies in mid-September after her father made her leave school due to fear of attack.

“My father told me to stop attending school because he feared that one day our school could be targeted by bombs or even by suicide attackers,” the 15-year-old said.

She’s one of thousands of students deprived of education due to fear of attacks in the volatile south where insurgents have stepped up attacks on government institutions, aid workers and foreign and local troops.

The threat is real enough as Marzia’s teacher explained: “I have received several warnings during the past two months including letters and even phone calls threatening me to stop working in the school, otherwise I will be killed,” Jamila Niazi, head of Lashkar Gah girls’ high school, told IRIN.

The extremist Taliban movement, which first emerged from southern Afghanistan, banned girls from attending schools and universities and stopped women from working in government institutions during their five-year rule. The fundamentalist organisation was ousted by a US-led coalition in late 2001 but has re-emerged to threaten the government of President Hamid Karzai.

“After the collapse of the Taliban, we started attending schools with a better hope for our future but now after five years, unfortunately it seems that we are again going back to the dark ages,” Marzia maintained.

The end of Taliban rule resulted in a concerted national and international campaign to get the nation’s education system working again. By December 2005 an additional 5.1 million children were being educated. Most impressively, 1.5 million girls who had been discriminated against under the Taliban returned to formal learning, according to UN figures.

But much of that optimism has now been lost. Currently, due to fear of attacks, the doors of some 330 mixed schools have been closed in Kandahar, Zabul and Helmand provinces alone, according to Saifal Maluk, head of education in Helmand province.

And it’s not just the south where primary education is suffering. “More than 200,000 students are shut out of schools across the country because of school closures due to fear of attacks,“ Deputy Education Minister Mohammad Sadiq Fatman told IRIN from Kabul.

In August, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that attacks on schools in the south and southeastern regions were spreading to other parts of Afghanistan and called for strict measures to ensure the safety of teachers and students.

In the six-month period to July this year, UNICEF had recorded 99 incidents involving schools, staff and pupils. The figure is more than six times the number in the same period in 2005. Six children have died as the result of the violence this year. The assaults include one missile attack, 11 explosions, 50 school burnings and 37 threats against schools and surrounding communities.

“With all that the children of Afghanistan have gone through, to expose them to this kind of terrible violence is appalling,” said Bernt Aasen, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan, last month.

Observers have pointed out that the closure of schools in southern Afghanistan will have consequences beyond the education sector.

“The [education] situation, which is extremely alarming in southern Afghanistan, not only threatens the future of thousands of people but will further fuel poverty, unemployment and the growing insurgency in those areas,” Abdul Quadar Noorzai, regional head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Kandahar, told IRIN.

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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