Broken Promises: How We Failed Afghanistan’s Girls

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Imagine that nine years ago, a rich philanthropist decided that your community needed an elementary school. He constructed a nice building, furnished it with desks and blackboards, and maybe even gave you a playground. Now imagine that the school was right in the middle of a vicious turf war between two rival gangs. The teachers at the school have a 10th grade education – and that’s in the classes that have teachers. Most don’t, because a teacher salary wouldn’t cover rent in the neighborhood, and few are willing to brave gunfire to get to work. Now, eight years on, the philanthropist is wondering why literacy rates haven’t improved in your community. Do you want to smack him yet?

Girl’s education was supposed to be the one success in Afghanistan’s largely unsuccessful war. But a sobering new report just released by a consortium of aid agencies, including Oxfam and Care International, reveals just how much we have failed Afghanistan’s future generation. Sure, an overwhelming 1.9 million Afghan girls are in primary school, compared to a couple thousand in 2001. But by the time junior high rolls around, that number goes down to 400,000. High School? 120,000. Don’t even ask about college. “We must ensure Afghan girls face a blackboard instead of a bleak future,” says Abdul Waheed Hamidy of Co-ordination for Humanitarian Assistance, an Afghan NGO which took part in the research. “Investing in education is vital for the future of Afghanistan. An educated woman is better able to stand up for her interests, raise a healthier family and contribute to the economy.”

There are many reasons why Afghan girls aren’t getting the education they deserve, and the report details them in depth. Insecurity and poverty loom large. But so does a low teacher salary and a lack of qualified teachers. We donate funds to build buildings, but what about augmenting salaries? What about teacher training colleges? If we had invested in Afghanistan’s teachers as much as we invested in physical infrastructure over the past nine years, we would have been able to lock in those gains. Now that the international community, in preparation for the eventual handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government in 2014, is focused more on stabilization and counterterrorism, aid agencies are worried that they may see even less education investment in years to come. It’s ironic, considering that a good education is probably one of the best counter-terrorism measures around.