The closure of schools and continuing attacks on students in the southern Helmand Province forced Abdul Wakil’s parents to send him to a madrasa (Islamic school) in neighbouring Pakistan.
Almost two months later, Abdul Wakil [not his real name] quit the school outside Quetta, capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan Province, and returned home.
"In the madrasa we were taught to sacrifice ourselves for Jihad in Afghanistan and were told to do suicide attacks," the 14-year-old told IRIN in Lashkargah, centre of Afghanistan's insurgency-torn Helmand Province.
"I don't want to be a suicide attacker, because it's forbidden in Islam, so I secretly quit the madrasa and returned home," the teenager said.
Abdul's parents are happy to have their son safe but are extremely concerned about his security.
"If the Taliban find out about him, they will kill him," said his father, who requested anonymity. "We are also concerned about his education and his future," he said.
His concerns are not unique in the volatile south, where attacks by insurgent groups have closed more than 630 schools, depriving 300,000 students of an education, according to the Ministry of Education (MoE).
Poor literacy rates
More than two decades of war have severely damaged education in Afghanistan, resulting in very low literacy rates: 12.6 percent among females and 43.1 percent among males, an average of 28.1 percent nationwide, according to aid agencies.
Photo: Masoud Popalzai/IRIN
|Tens of thousands of young males attend religious schools in neighbouring Pakistan|
The insurgents’ anti-education activities - armed attacks, intimidation and negative propaganda - seek to shut down schools and deny students – girls and boys – a formal education that mixes modern scientific subjects with Islamic studies.
From January to October 2008, 256 school-related security incidents, with 30 deaths, were reported, against 213 incidents in the same period in 2007, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
As a result, going to school has become increasingly dangerous for students and teachers.
However, the insurgents have tacitly encouraged parents to send their sons to religious schools in neighbouring Pakistan for Islamic studies.
"Pakistani madrasas brainwash students and teach them religious extremism, armed Jihad and hatred against the government in Afghanistan and the West," said Gulab Mangal, Helmand's governor.
Almost all Taliban leaders, including their reclusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, were trained in Pakistani madrasas.
Madrasas not only offer immunity from Taliban attacks but also provide free board and lodging to students and are thus more attractive to poor families than modern schools.
Tens of thousands of Afghan citizens are enrolled in Pakistani madrasas, MoE officials estimate.
Photo: Masoud Popalzai/IRIN
|Of Afghanistan's six million students, 35 percent are female, while more than 1.2 million school-age girls do not attend school|
The government has recently enhanced efforts to protect schools and schoolchildren from Taliban action.
Asif Nang, a spokesman for the MoE, told IRIN the government was ready to negotiate with the opposition over schools and would be willing to accommodate their religious reservations.
"If they want to call schools ‘madrasa’ we will accept that, if they want to say Mullah to a teacher we have no problem with that. Whatever objections they [the Taliban] may have we are ready to talk to them," Nang said.
The MoE also emphasised that its curriculum was entirely in accordance with Islamic values and girls were required to comply with Islamic dressing codes (including wearing the hijab) to school.
Owing to this appeasing approach, the government has reopened 24 schools in Helmand, Ghazni and Kandahar provinces previously shut by insurgents.
"We aim to reopen all the schools which are closed because of insecurity," assured Farooq Wardak, the education minister, adding that hundreds of new schools would be built in 2009.
However, none of the 16 schools reopened in Helmand over the past three months catered for girls, the MoE said, a severe blow for already low female literacy rates.
Of six million students, 35 percent are female, while more than 1.2 million school-age girls do not attend school, according to UNICEF and Care International.
In addition to insecurity, conservative traditions and other prevalent gender inequity norms, particularly in the south and south-east, impede girls’ access to education.