Christmas Appeal: Help for the generation robbed of its education

Justin Huggler in Kabul finds boys and girls are still suffering from the Taliban legacy
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Indy Politics

The youngest child in the classroom is nine, the oldest is 17, and the rest are in between, but they are all studying together. The reason is that this is a school for those who have been left behind by Afghanistan's war-torn education system.

Hamida is 17. Before she started coming to these classes last year, she could not read. She knew no maths. She had never been to school in her life. This classroom, partly set up by Children in Crisis, one of the charities in The Independent's Christmas Appeal, is the first chance she has had to get an education.

These children are victims of the Taliban four years after they were overthrown. Unable to go to school under the theocracy, they find the new pro-Western government still won't teach them. Afghanistan's rules say children cannot advance to the next stage in the education process unless they have passed exams by a certain age. Those who were prevented from going to school by the Taliban are too old to rejoin the system.

Everyone knows the Taliban closed Afghanistan's girls' schools. What is less well known is that boys were only given a medieval-style Islamic education. They learnt Islamic jurisprudence but not maths. An entire generation of Afghan children has been robbed of an education.

That's where Children in Crisis has stepped in, with a consortium of other international and Afghan non-government organisations. The project is simple. They condense six years of school into three years of intensive teaching, allowing children to make up lost time and get back into the system. They call it accelerated learning.

For Hamida, it means she will get a basic education before she marries. She is already engaged, but her fiancé's family has agreed to delay the wedding until she completes the course.

For younger children, such as 13-year-old Rabia, it means they will be able to catch up with the system and get into the government schools, making even university a possibility for a child who only last year was looking at a future of almost certain illiteracy.

Sha never went to school. But now her 17-year-old daughter, Jana, is getting an education in the accelerated learning classes. "I am illiterate," she says. "But I'd like my daughter one day to become a teacher."

In the icy hills above the Shomali plains, where battles once raged, a class is being held on the floor of a simple mud building. The curriculum has been adapted to the peculiar educational needs of Afghanistan. One of the subjects is landmine awareness - Afghanistan has one of the worst landmine problems in the world. Fawad, 16, demonstrates what to do if you find a mine, spreading his arms wide in warning.

The teacher here, Farida, like most of the teachers on the programme, works at a government school in the morning, then teaches the accelerated class in the afternoon.

Training teachers to get children through the course at twice the normal speed, without any of the facilities available at the government schools, was one of the biggest challenges for the programme - and the one Children in Crisis has taken as its responsibility in a project funded by a number of agencies.

The scheme involves 6,800 classes in 17 provinces across Afghanistan - many dangerous and inaccessible places. The solution Children in Crisis came up with is a simple pyramid. It employs eight senior trainers. They train 51 trainers who then go out to the provinces to train the teachers. It is a model that Children in Crisis readily admits has not worked elsewhere, but which it says has proved uniquely appropriate to Afghanistan, where a teaching system that could cope with the country's peculiar demands had to be forged.

The trainers who trek out to the provinces are proud of the individual successes from their areas. Sayed Ghani, from Nangahar, proudly shows a picture of Mujahed, who wasn't allowed into the government schools because he has no arms and only one leg, but who is now teaching the new things he has learnt at the accelerated learning class to children at the madrassa religious school.

In the more liberal areas around Kabul and to the north and west, many of the classes are mixed-sex. Overall, 52 per cent of the students in the scheme are girls, a big achievement in a country where fathers are still deeply suspicious of anything that takes their daughters out of the safety of the home.

Another of the teachers in the Shomali plains is Sayed Wazir. During the Soviet occupation, he fought against the Russians in these same hills with the mujahedin under the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Today, Mr Hekmatyar is still out in the hills, fighting against the American presence in Afghanistan.

But Mr Wazir has returned to the job he had before the Russians came, as a teacher. In a makeshift classroom in the local mosque, he is one of those forging a future for his country.

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