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Afghans Want Schools. The Hard Part Is Getting Their Children There.

photo: Ghor Province, Afghanistan

When Steinhardt professor Dana Burde arrived in Afghanistan in 2005, the nation’s school participation rates were dismal; by 2007, only 37 percent of primary school-age children attended. And of those, most were boys; in rural areas, the gender gap in enrollment was 17 percentage points.

At that time, the Taliban, who had banned girls’ education when they were in power, were still bombing and burning schools and attacking girls’ schools disproportionately. In the country’s most remote (and largely lawless) regions, like Ghor Province, where Burde had come to conduct research, young students had to walk miles to get to government-run schools in distant towns. Many parents, understandably, refused to subject their children to the dangers of such a journey.

But there was a ray of hope, in the form of community-based village schools being set up by non-governmental organizations. With Leigh Linden, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, Burde conducted a randomized trial to determine the effects of these local schools on the enrollment and academic performance of 1,490 primary school children in 31 villages. The results were striking: Providing a village with its own place of learning improved enrollment for boys and dramatically increased it for girls—so much so that the gender gap was eliminated.

Still, with Western nations gradually withdrawing troops from the war-torn nation, the future of education in Afghanistan remains uncertain. What will become of the community-based schools—and their students—if and when the NGOs leave?

Burde, along with Joel Middleton, a visiting assistant professor at Steinhardt’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Cyrus Samii, an assistant professor in NYU’s Wilf Family Department of Politics, has embarked on a new research project to help chart a course for a smooth transition from NGO-supported schools to a system under the purview of the national government. Supported by grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development and Danish International Development Agency, the team will study schools in 220 villages, focusing on teacher recruitment efforts and strategies for continuing to increase girls’ academic performance.

NYU Stories sat down with Burde to talk about opportunities for girls, what Islam has to say about education, and whether she feels safe working in Afghanistan.

What is a community-based school?
In Afghanistan it generally looks like this: An NGO goes to a village that hasn’t previously had a school, or is, say, three kilometers away from a government school, and brings Afghan staff from the region to help communities understand what kind of service they’re proposing. The communities agree to commit space—often in a mosque—for the school, so there’s no new construction; the schools function within existing structures. The community also provides a teacher who is given some in-kind income—food, for example—by the villagers. The NGO contributes to the teacher’s salaries—and now the government is trying to get teachers on the government payroll. The government provides the textbooks for the school, and the NGOs train the teachers in government-standard curricula and pedagogies.

Why is it important to find teachers native to the villages where they’ll be teaching?
Imagine a place where culture changes dramatically from one valley to the next. Dialects differ. Literacy rates are low. Communities are very insular and you can’t go to a new village unless you’re invited. You just wouldn’t show up. If you’re a government-trained teacher from another area of the country, you might not want to move to a new, foreign location. And the community wouldn’t necessarily want to accept you.

In your previous study you found that parents expressed equal interest in educating their sons and daughters. Did that come as a surprise?
There’s a misconception in the West that Afghans are hostile to education and that they’re particularly hostile to educating girls. What’s hard for people to see is that, when you talk about sending girls to school, the problem is not with “school,” the problem is “sending.” Just separating those two things is incredibly important.

How so?
In villages without their own schools, children will walk as much as four hours one-way to go to school. Parents aren’t comfortable letting very young children do that, and families are much more reluctant to let girls out of their sight when they reach puberty—girls often get married around age 15—so it ends up being mostly boys 9 or older going to school.

What does the Qur’an have to say about educating girls?
It’s important to disentangle Islam from Afghan attitudes toward sending children to school. People in the United States don’t always realize that the Qur’an actually requires that people be educated—men and women both.

Do you feel safe working in Afghanistan?
The situation has certainly deteriorated every year since I started working in Afghanistan in 2005, which is sad. The security is uneven throughout the country, so some places have stayed relatively safe the whole time, and other places have deteriorated more. And safety depends a lot on whom you’re with. If you go to a community unannounced, that’s not a safe thing to do. But if you’ve been invited and you’re accompanied by someone who’s from there, then you’re fine, typically. And then there’s Kabul, which despite it all has seen growth in entrepreneurialism and business. It almost seems like a thriving metropolis—but with barricades all over the city. Every time I go back there seem to be more of them. You know how Eskimos have lots of words for snow? People in Kabul have lots of words for security barriers—a whole vast vocabulary.

What are the goals of your new study?
In our first study, we saw that if you put community-based schools in villages, you can eliminate the gender gap in enrollment, but they didn’t eliminate the gender gap in achievement. So we’re trying to first maintain girls’ enrollment in school and second increase their achievement. That’s one question. Another is how to help the government take up these schools after the NGOs end their period of administration. Historically, that transition hasn’t been managed very effectively, so we’re setting up this project to have a smooth transfer that we can test and see if it’s sustainable. We’ll also be testing other kinds of interventions that the NGOs are doing to improve educational outcomes in these villages—like working with local libraries to get adults reading and talking and educating themselves a little bit.

What about teacher training?
The Ministry of Education requires that teachers have 12 or 14 years of education, but in the remote villages the NGOs have a really hard time finding teachers who have anything above a 6th-grade education. So that’s one of the details we’re working out. We’re going to try and find teachers that meet the government standard, but we have to coach the villages to accept these teachers and coach the teachers to be willing to go. Or, if a village does provide a teacher, we have to think about how to get that person up to speed, and how to get them the extra training needed for the Ministry of Education to accept them.

What’s the best possible future you can envision for education in Afghanistan?
We’ll need to be imaginative for a minute. Imagine somehow there’s peace, and the Taliban is brought into some kind of political process that doesn’t reduce anyone’s rights—particularly women’s rights. Then community-based schools would be able to take off, and the government would be able to rapidly expand universal access across the country. Barring peace, I think the government could at least maintain access fairly effectively through these community-based schools. We know they work. The government just needs to make sure it’s able to continue the level of support to teachers both in training and in salaries. And I think that’s doable even with the conflict continuing.

—Eileen Reynolds

Photo: Ghor Province village, by James Gordon (via flickr)


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