As I read wide-eyed the dismally low statistics of the number of children that go to school in Afghanistan, I assume that being a conservative society education must have always taken a backseat in this country. This is actually not true. As we trace the history of the education system in Afghanistan, we see an extremely checkered tryst with education.
It was only at the turn of the last century or so that a modern system of education was introduced. Earlier to that, education was mostly religious in nature and was imparted by the madrasas (religious schools). In 1935, the Afghan government made education compulsory and free for all children. In the next 3 decades, attention was paid to extending education to rural areas and also to setting up of more elementary secondary schools and vocational schools. Despite these efforts, education largely remained a preserve of the elite with most of the rural folks having no access to schools.
The conservative society also viewed secular schools as threats to Islamic culture and were wary of sending their children to them. It was mostly a handful of larger cities like Kabul that got the benefits of education. Most of the educated were employed by the government service to be bureaucrats, almost 90% as a matter of fact! During the King’s rule and before the Soviet coup, some large centers of learning like Kabul University were set up. Urban upper class enjoyed the benefits of democracy and education, and resentment brewed among the poor and the illiterate with the growing corruption and lack of opportunities for them. Many youths coming out of religious schools got recruited by radical movements as a direct consequence of social turmoil.
After the Soviet invasion, the Soviets tried to provide more educational opportunities to all. But education with a Communist propaganda was viewed negatively by the rural folks who revolted against this type of education. This kept most of the population away from getting educated or getting jobs. In cities, the percentage of girls and boys getting educated was relatively better.
The discontent with the Soviet regime and their subsequent overthrow caused a lot of political turmoil in Afghanistan in the late 80s and 90s when first the warring mujahideen and later the Taliban took over the reins of government in Afghanistan. These hardened fundamentalists enforced strict religious rule, banned education for girls, and allowed mostly religious education for boys. The education infrastructure was harmed and many schools destroyed. Women were stopped from working hence many teachers, professors and doctors were forced to stay at home. This hit the remaining operational schools too.
After the Taliban were overthrown by the NATO forces in 2001, in the last decade or so, active attention has been paid towards increasing educational infrastructure in Afghanistan, getting more girls to enroll, spread education to rural areas, train more teachers, provide support via funding to setup more schools and vocational schools. It is a really uphill task, but some progress is being seen though a lot of work still remains to be done.
The Ministry of Education in Afghanistan state on their website that 42% of children of school-going age have no access to education. There is also a cultural barrier and orthodox mindset that still prevents higher education of girls. Most girls leave school before reaching high school levels. A paucity of women teachers does aggravate the problem.
In the years to come, there will be a challenge to modernize the religious education that exists side by side the conventional education. An attitudinal change along with an increase in infrastructure will both be crucial towards a better educated and progressive Afghanistan.
See the video above about one such school in Afghanistan that is being built by FilmAnnex's initiative.
To see more of my videos and blog posts on Afghanistan, view my webtv