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Parent power deployed to protect schools from Taliban

Afghanistan's government is trying to harness parent power in an attempt to stop the Taliban burning schools and murdering teachers. There has been a sharp rise in attacks on schools since the new term started on 23 March, prompting fears that the Taliban are returning to a campaign waged two years ago to cripple the education system.

In the past three weeks, at least 10 schools have been torched and a guard had his ears cut off. Now education chiefs are using parent-teacher associations to guard schools, record Nato troop levels and billions of dollars spent rebuilding the police force having failed to curb attacks. In the two years to February, at least 235 teachers, students and education workers were killed and 222 wounded.

Under the protection programme, sometimes called School Councils or School Shuras, villagers agree to provide a small quota of night watchmen to take turns on guard. "Parent power is exactly what it is," an education official said. "We bring parents, teachers and some key people in the community together to agree to protect the schools."

In Logar province last month, a primary school was saved by a gang of furious fathers who chased would-be arsonists into the night. The head of the local PTA, Basir, said armed men approached a co-ed primary school for more than 600 students after midnight. "They had guns and petrol to burn the school. But the guards saw them and started shouting," he said. "Everyone came out of their houses and when the terrorists realised, they ran away."

More than 5.8 million children, 2 million of them girls, now attend school, compared with fewer than a million under the Taliban. The Ministry of Education said 9,600 schools were being protected by parent-teacher groups. "Insurgents attack schools because they represent the government in rural areas," said the Ministry of Education's chief protection officer, Shaifullah Shafi.

"They are often the only thing insurgents can attack without getting hurt. We can't deploy police or armed forces to each and every school; it's beyond our capacity. But even if we could, it would only make them bigger targets."

In the northern province of Kunduz, three schools have been burnt in the past three weeks, two have been attacked in Kandahar, and there have been single attacks in Helmand, Paktia, Khost, Wardak, Logar and Farah provinces.

The Ministry of Education said the councils worked best in remote areas where the government and the insurgents were vying for control. The councils are not strong enough to resist in areas under full Taliban control.