Girls long to learn at school for refugees

THE GANGS of men on the road from the Afghan capital, Kabul, to Peshawar in Pakistan are not, as first appears, mending the suspension- shattering surface with their spades and picks. That is a charade: they are just going through the motions.

And nor are the "men" in the gangs fully grown. The biggest are in their early teens; some are as young as five or six.

These are the war children of Afghanistan.

Hundreds of them are seen in the course of the 120km journey. This is their way of begging.

The Taliban's pariah status has obscured the misery of ordinary Afghans in the war in which their country has been embroiled since the Soviet invasion of 1979. One of the results of the war was the immense flood of Afghan refugees into neighbouring Pakistan - estimated at three and a half million, of which 2.2 million were concentrated around Peshawar. Though many have been repatriated, 1.2 million remain.

Pakistan's education system does an inadequate job of educating even its own citizens; Afghan refugees are lucky to get a look-in. So to provide the beginnings of a solution for the refugees, a non-governmental organisation, called AG BAS-Ed, has set up a school in Peshawar to educate Afghani girls. War Child supports it, paying the rent for the building, and the costs of textbooks and teaching staff and utilities.

Girls are the ones who are most in need. Although before the civil war Kabul was a relatively modernised city where many girls went to school and many women worked, war and fundamentalism have driven Afghan women back to the dark ages. Unicef estimates that female literacy in Afghanistan today is just 15 per cent, the fifth-lowest in the world. Only 11 per cent of girls attend primary school. Esmat Girls' School offers hundreds of refugees the glimmer of a chance. Set up two years ago in a converted house on a narrow back street in the Shaheen district, it quickly became a busy, flourishing place. Close to 600 students squeeze into the school in two shifts, grades one to four in the morning and five to twelve in the afternoon, taught by 24 teachers.

Pressure on the two (out of a total of three) lavatories reserved for students is heavy. "There are some odours in two of the classrooms with attached bathrooms due to the extensive use of the facilities," a recent inspector pointed out primly - though with War Child's assistance the principal hopes to relieve the crush soon with three small outdoor lavatories.

Lavatories apart, practically every space in and around the house is pressed into service for teaching: classes are held in the garages and the backyard and in tents on the roof as well as in the rooms of the house.

But still parents batter on the doors, pleading for their children to be admitted. If three classrooms are built on the roof - the same inspector who made the point about the lavatories felt this would be feasible - fewer of them would have to be turned away.

The hunger of Afghans for learning is approaching desperation. In Kabul, now a place of ruins ruled by philistines, even the children of the middle class elite are at their wits' end; attending medical classes, for example, in the wreckage of Kabul University where no real work can be done because all the laboratory equipment has been destroyed.

In Peshawar's teeming refugee camps, where refugees struggle to make a paltry living as fruit sellers or labourers, the position is far worse.

Esmat Girls' School is making a difference. A recent War Child report says: "Pupils come from a variety of backgrounds, but all now live in impoverished circumstances and share a common history of suffering caused by Afghanistan's war. The devotion of the school staff is an inspiration... Pupils are keen to learn, hoping to become doctors and teachers."

As one Afghan woman remarked: "Afghanistan without educated women is like a bird with only one wing."

CHILDREN & WAR: THE AFGHAN FILE

n TWENTY YEARS of armed conflict have devastated the lives of Afghan children.

n Girls, and boys, have suffered rape and sexual assault.

n About 10 million landmines have been laid. An average of seven children are killed by landmines each day.

n There are more than two million Afghan refugees - the largest single refugee group in the world.

n Four million children have died from illness.

n Literacy rates have dropped to 4 per cent for women and girls.

Source: Amnesty International

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