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Afghan Girls Go to School — Slowly, Surely

President Bush often says “Girls go to school now” when touting the success of the U.S. military campaign that ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan.

The progress in Afghanistan (search) over the last three years is undeniable. Approximately 5 million children are now enrolled in school — and 40 percent of them are girls.

Malaly Pikar Volpi, director of the Policy Council on Afghan Women, said educating girls is part of a backlash against the repressive Taliban regime.

“Because education for girls was forbidden by the Taliban, it has come to symbolize freedom and prestige in Afghanistan," she said. "Groups that were especially persecuted by the Taliban, such as the Tajiks and the Hezaras, are now forcefully sending their children to school.”

But not everyone is convinced that America is doing all it can to ensure women receive an education in the region. According to UNICEF, 60 percent of Afghan girls under age 11 are not enrolled in school, even though 1,600 schools for girls have opened since 2001.

Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs Dr. Massouda Jalal (search) praised progress in Afghanistan but cautioned that more work remains.

“Although we have about 5 million students, boys and girls, in the primary school, we shouldn't forget that one-third of this figure are girls and it's still 60 percent of the girls within the school age are outside the educational system," said Jalal, who was speaking during a March 8 press conference at the State Department

Some aid groups say the United States has not done enough to provide a stable environment in which girls can attend school safely. Critics also say the war in Iraq and the ongoing fight against the insurgency there have taken attention and funds away from Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, the United States has provided the bulk of money being poured into Afghanistan to fund education initiatives. In March, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a $2.5 million grant to the Afghanistan Ministry of Women’s Affairs. USAID has pledged $50 million to women’s causes in Afghanistan since 2001.

Overall, the United States has given Afghanistan $4 billion in the three years since the fall of the Taliban. The 2005 budget includes $1.2 billion for development in Afghanistan, including education initiatives.

For education alone, USAID has allocated approximately $217.38 million of $3.5 billion in aid for Afghanistan for education. Approximately $60 million has been earmarked for primary education, according to the State Department. This is more than the amount given for education to Egypt, which is the third-largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States.

Opinions on progress differ vastly, with some seeing a country that is starting almost from scratch — without basic infrastructure intact and recovering from decades of war — and others seeing millions of dollars pouring into the country but not feeling the results.

Nabila Hashimi, an adult student in Kabul who also works with an Afghan government development initiative, said more funding is needed for schools.

“In main cities where high demand for girls' education exists, the international assistance and intervention is not quite enough," she said. "There are no properly built schools and other educational materials. The lack of facilities and opportunities limits female education even in big cities of the country.”

In e-mailed exchanges, Hashimi added that teachers sometimes do not show up for classes because of travel complications; however, she praised the opportunity to learn and fretted over the recent spate of kidnappings and killings targeting female aid workers and the shadow they may cast over progress.

Some blame non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, for inadequate funding for education initiatives. “It is believed that assistance could have had higher reach had funds been channeled differently," Volpi said.

"For example, had it not been for the high overhead costs [expatriate housing, security, consultant fees and pay incentives, etc.] that are associated with privatized reconstruction through NGOs, the money so far spent could have built many more schools.”

Volpi said nearly all education development funding has been channeled through large U.S. contractors, such as Creative Associates International. “Although the U.S. government instructs large contractors to work with small local organizations, it rarely happens,” she said.

While much of the focus has been on educating girls, some say boys should be brought into the fold as well. While boys were educated under Taliban rule, most were taught rote memorization of the Koran — à la Pakistani-style madrassas — and there was no standard for education.

Some say the focus on educating girls will flood the society with women who are resented by men because their education level is higher. Radical elements of society have also charged the U.S. with imposing Western norms on an Afghan society.

Tom Gouttierre (search), director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies, said the United States isn’t imposing an alien culture on Afghanistan at all. Rather, he says, it has helped them regain part of their legacy. Gouttierre said Afghanistan was instituting reforms and opening schools to women in the 1960s and 1970s, before the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the decades of war that followed.

“What you see today is an attempt to put that process back on track more than anything else,” Gouttierre said.

He said the Afghan people feel entitled to education because it is part of their collective national memory. Teaching is traditionally one of the most respected professions in the country, regardless of ethnic or linguistic group, and Afghans place education in high regard.

Hassina Sherjan is the executive director of Aid Afghanistan, which opens schools throughout the country and is primarily funded by the Danish government. She said families are not ashamed of sending their girls to school and are a driving force behind education efforts there.

“The families have been very supportive. Everyone has been asking us to establish a school in their region,” Sherjan said.

But what do women do after they’ve received their education? How receptive is the society to opening up the economy to women?

Cheryl Benard, who has visited Afghanistan on projects for the RAND Corporation, said Afghanistan should be making more of an effort to focus on vocational training for women, in addition to education.

“Women's participation in the economy is not very controversial in post-conflict Afghanistan, though families may have strong notions of what kind of job setting is appropriate,” Benard said.

"We need to build more schools for the girls, equip them. More female teachers need to be trained and paid, and we need to create awareness among the parents to know the importance of the children's education, particularly the girls,” Jalal said in her State Department address.

The Bush administration said it is taking steps to rectify this problem. On March 30, first lady Laura Bush was on hand in Kabul to dedicate the opening of the Women’s Teacher Training Institute, which will help to train women who will be sent to remote areas to instruct girls.

Gouttierre emphasized that the changes in Afghanistan are slow but steadfast. “What is going on in Afghanistan is irreversible and women are indomitable, the way they quietly … march forth. They’ve been measured, but you know the determination. They’ve learned when they should take their steps forward.”

Afghan women have been forced to adapt because of the dire conditions of their homeland in recent years. Because of this, Gouttierre said they will progress accordingly.

“They will be prudent when prudence is the choice that better ensures their success," he said. "They will be bold when boldness is the better choice.”