15-year old Zahra returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan two years ago. The family haven’t returned to their home village because of fighting in the areas. Zahra only completed Grade 1 at school before dropping out to help at home but she now attends accelerated learning classes in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan to try and catch up on some of her missed years. “I want to be a journalist because I want to visit vulnerable people and listen to them and take notes,” she says. Credit: Toby Fricker

For the First Time Since the US-Lead Intervention, the Rate of Children Not in School in Afghanistan is Rising

For the first time since 2002, when a US-lead intervention toppled the Taliban government, the rate of children not in school in Afghanistan is rising.

According to a new report by UNICEF and the Afghan government this week, almost half of the country’s 7- to 17-year-olds – as many as 3.7 million – are missing out on school. Of those, 2.2 million (60 percent) are girls. Worryingly, another 300,000 kids who are currently in primary school are at risk of dropping out, the report estimates.

These findings seem to have sparked a sense of urgency in the government, which has declared 2018 a “year of education.”

“Now is the time for a renewed commitment to provide girls and boys with the relevant learning opportunities they need to progress in life and to play a positive role in society,” Adele Khodr, UNICEF’s Afghanistan representative, said in a press release.

After decades of conflict ravaged the country, Afghanistan set out in 2001 to reboot its education system, following the U.S. invasion and ouster of the Taliban government. Together, the international community, local communities and civil society worked to repair school buildings, set up additional temporary classrooms, provide access to safe water and sanitation, develop curriculum and bring in school supplies.

By March 2002, children were back in classrooms for the first time in years. Three million kids attended school that first year, and in 2003, more than 4 million children filled classrooms, according to a UNICEF report from that year.

In the subsequent years, enrollment continued to rise, especially among girls. The Constitution of Afghanistan even stipulates free primary and secondary education by the state. Yet, as the most recent data indicate, improvements need to be made if the Ministry of Education is to keep the out-of-school rate from continuing to rise.

According to the report, the contributing – and co-dependent – barriers to education span both the demand-side and supply-side of the equation.

Insufficient demand from the population for education is tied to both socio-cultural factors as well as economic. For example, child marriage “remains the second-most reported reason for girls dropping out of school,” the report says. Insecurity is also a very real risk for both boys and girls, but because of “gendered perceptions of insecurity,” 22 percent of girls cited insecurity (including the risk of harassment) as a reason for not attending school, compared to 8 percent of boys.

Other demand-side barriers to education include the parents’ level of education, poverty, beliefs about religious education and child labor, among others.

On the supply-side, barriers are caused by the “lack of educational opportunities offered,” including the lack of provisions for nomadic lifestyles or displaced families, the lack of teachers (in quality and quantity, especially of females) and the lack of infrastructure, to name a few.

As the data show, these barriers disproportionately affect girls and children in rural areas and areas with higher rates of displaced households. In fact, the provinces that have seen the highest rates in out-of-school children – including Kandahar, Helmand, Wardak, Paktika, Zabul and Uruzgan – are in the southern part of the country with the highest rates of internally displaced persons. In those areas, up to 85 percent of girls are not attending school.

“Business as usual is not an option for Afghanistan if we are to fulfill the right to education for every child,” Khodr said. “When children are not in school, they are at an increased danger of abuse, exploitation and recruitment.”

Certainly, it’s not all bad news. Dropout rates are actually quite low, according to the report with 85 percent of children who start primary school completing the last grade. In lower secondary schools, 94 percent of boys and 90 percent of girls also complete all the grades. Afghanistan’s “dropout and survival rates” are actually better than its neighbors Pakistan and Nepal; although, the report notes that may be partially because of the number of children in Afghanistan who’ve never even enrolled.

The report notes, too, that lack of sufficient data poses a significant barrier to improving access to education in Afghanistan. Even estimates by government officials of the number of children in school in 2015 spanned from 6 million to 11 million, and the last time they conducted a full census was in 1979.

Still, in response to the concerning findings in this week’s report, the government and its partners have expressed an eagerness to implement the recommendations in the report to move toward achieving Goal 4 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

These recommendations include addressing data gaps, optimizing coordination across sectors, increasing public spending on education, improving accountability systems and, of course, targeting vulnerable groups, such as girls and displaced children.

As the acting minister of education, Mohammad Ibrahim Shinwari, wrote, “We cannot achieve our government’s ambitious plan for long-term prosperity in Afghanistan without continuing to prioritize programming that brings out-of school children into the education system.”