This I Believe

Richard - Diamond Bar, California
Entered on October 24, 2006

This I believe…

In 2002, soon after the cessation of conflict in Afghanistan the school house doors were thrown open and rather than the expected 1.5 million children returning to school, more than 3 million arrived. In the words of one Iman…

It is not just the children marching to school with their school bags, but the nation marching towards education and a more peaceful and prosperous future.

In the history of the country, no more than 1.5 million children, predominantly boys, enrolled in formal education. In just four short years, Afghanistan has continued its growth in access to its current enrollment of over 5 million, nearly 60 percent of the estimated school-aged population. At the same time, girls’ enrollment has gone from 2% during the Taliban regime to nearly 40% today, making Afghanistan one of the most outstanding countries in terms of progress towards meeting the EFA Goals of gender parity.

After observing this remarkable progress close hand for the past four years, I continue to be left with the question, “Why?” Why are so many children seeking an education today in a country where education was the prerogative of the elite and only a handful of bright youth from the peasant class? Why do parents struggling to survive in a country with a medium income of less than a dollar a day willingly make the sacrifice of sending their sons and/or daughters to school? And, why do teachers, most of whom lack basic teacher training and about half of whom don’t even have a high school education, continue to teach?

The typical “school” is a tent or simply a tarp that has to be raised and lowered each day, a few plastic mats on the dirt floor, and a crude blackboard. Curriculum materials are a hodge-podge collection of textbooks, some dating as far back as the jihad against the Soviets printed in which math lessons were taught by adding the number of soldiers killed. The textbooks adopted by the Taliban can also be seen, but rather than glorifying the demise of Soviets, guns and grenades are counted. Slowly, textbooks that represent the “new” curriculum adopted by the current Government of Afghanistan and printed with US support are appearing in classrooms throughout the country, but not all teachers are prepared to teach the new “learner-centered and activity-based” curriculum. Did I mention that most teachers earn only $32 a month, most of which is paid in food subsidies, which are often delayed 4 to 6 months? Why?

I believe….

Education is hope. Particularly in post-conflict societies, education represents an opportunity to bring about a change in the life-chances and economic opportunities for individuals, the families from which they come, and for their society. Education theorists laud the benefits of education as contributing to economic growth and poverty reduction in developing societies. But, from the perspective of a subsistence farmer, or a widowed mother, sending their children to school represents a gesture of hope for a brighter future for future generations. It is true that education represents opportunities for economic opportunities that are unavailable to the uneducated. But it also means, especially for girls, improved health, better pre-natal and child-care practices, and awareness of how to reduce risks, whether from unsafe drinking water or land mines left from past conflicts. Education can also mean a higher dowry and possibly a means of moving up the social ladder for a family.

I recall meeting with the women’s shura in a remote village of Dikundi. Although none of them were literate they came to plead for schooling for the girls in their village. When asked why their response was simple and direct, “So that our daughters and granddaughters don’t have to live the way we have had to live. Education is change, and most developing societies, particularly post-conflict ones, desperately want a change in their life conditions.

Education is stability. Building a school which children attend each day establishes a routine that is safe and welcomed by the community. In post-conflict societies, among disaster survivors, or in camps set-up for displaced persons, schooling provides a predictable pattern of activity and community engagement that reduces the daily stresses of survival. Seeing children marching to school, bright-eyes and smiling, and listening to their laughter as they gather on the school grounds is the most soothing of elixirs in an otherwise troubled and chaotic world.

Why…..because I still believe in the children.