Girls' hope stifled by Kandahar tradition

AFGHANISTAN

"I had to wait until my husband died before I was able to come to school," said Bibi Zara, 79, her withered hands clasping a textbook for infants.

In her reading classes at the Women's Association of Kandahar the youngest is aged nine.

But these are among the lucky minority of girls and women in southern Afghanistan who have been able to get some kind of schooling.

With only weeks to go before the start of a new school term in the south, just 9 per cent of school-age girls in southern Afghanistan have registered for classes. This compares with 45 per cent in the capital Kabul, an education official said last week.

Convincing parents of the need to educate their daughters is a challenge all over the country, but it is especially difficult here in the south, the home of the traditionalist Pashtun community and once the stronghold of the conservative Taliban.

Despite radio announcements and, in some areas, door-to-door campaigns urging parents to sign their children up for classes, which start next month, enrolment of girls has been poor.

Mohammed Dawood Barak, the education ministry official in charge of the country's southern provinces, blames a culture in which women lack any real power and that views education as the province of men.

Of the 275 schools of all levels in Kandahar province alone, fewer than a dozen are for girls.

Many rural and small-town Afghans have never accepted education of women or that women can work as teachers. "In May, people pasted leaflets on the school that said the infidels were trying to corrupt the youth of Afghanistan and that parents should resist sending their children to school," said Mohammed Wali, headmaster for the Shamsudin Kakar girls'

school in Panjwai, a town about an hour west of Kandahar, the south's largest city.

Not a single girl had registered for classes at the school, he said.

Even Mr Barak travels with two armed guards because of death threats from opponents of girls' education and other reforms.

UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency - helped by funds raised by TES readers among others - is trying to change that. The aid agency's regional head was expelled from Kandahar by the Taliban in 1997 because of its commitment to gender equality. But this year it resumed full operations in the area.

UNICEF is providing southern schools with more than half a million books and hundreds of tents to handle the increase in students, many of them returning refugees.

The agency's Kandahar head, Douglas Higgins, said girls in the the region were the worst off in the country for education. But, said Mr Dawood Bark:

"This is old Taliban territory. So it's going to take a while for things to change."

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