Afghan Private Schools Seen As Sign Of Hope, Optimism
Maftah is the first private school in Afghanistan's northern Parwan Province. But its history is brief, having opened its doors only two months ago.
Enrollment fees, at $15 per month, are beyond the reach of most Afghans, but the presence of 300 children at the school shows that a number of families have decided it is worth the price.
The school claims it can offer better teaching facilities, and more qualified teachers than public schools.
And Samiullah, a 10-year-old student who attended a public school before enrolling in Maftah, says he notices the difference.
"Our teachers work hard with us. They are very strict," he says. "In public school, teachers don't try hard. My parents put me in private school so I could learn more."
Since the authorities opened the way for private investment into Afghanistan's education system nearly two years ago, more than 300 private schools have opened from Kabul to remote provinces.
And not all parents who have enrolled their children at Maftah are wealthy.
Parwan resident Hajji Rahmatullah says he saved money and took up extra work to cover the costs of his son's private education. He views it as an investment in his son's future.
"A month ago, I brought my son to private school, and I can already see during that one month that my son's schoolwork has improved," Rahmatullah says.
The emergence of private schools, the majority of which are secular, and parents' eager interest in educating their children is seen by many as a sign of growing stability and optimism for the future.
Only eight years ago there wasn't a single secular school in Afghanistan, and those who were able to receive an education attended religious schools. All the students -- less than half a million per year -- were boys, since girls were completely banned from schools by the hard-line Taliban regime.
This academic year, more than 7 million children are attending Afghanistan's nearly 9,000 schools -- both private and public, with both systems boasting that girls make up 35-40 percent of their enrollment.
The revival of Afghanistan's education system, especially girls' return to schools, is considered one of the biggest achievements of the Afghan government that came to power after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001.
However, success has come at a dear cost. In volatile southern and eastern areas, militants have set fire to schools and have attacked teachers and students as soft targets.
More than 60 schools have been burned down in the past year, and some 650 more have been closed down due to the lack of security.
In a shocking example of the extreme lengths those opposed to girls' education will take, two attackers sprayed acid on the faces of several female students in southern Kandahar last year, causing severe burns to their faces and arms.
The lack of security as well as the deeply conservative society's traditions still force many parents in rural areas to keep their daughters out of schools. In villages, education officials reach out to elders and influential religious leaders to help persuade parents to send their daughters to schools. In many towns and villages, local councils have been set up to protect schools.
Such efforts "are paying off," according to Mohammad Siddiq Patman, Afghanistan's deputy education minister, who says that "the number of parents who don't support girls' education have significantly dropped in the past year."
Even in Kandahar, where the infamous acid attack took place, the victims have returned to schools after receiving medical treatment, Patman says.
Lack Of Funding
Such developments are taken as a success, as is the increased number of private and public schools. But the country still needs thousands of new schools to accommodate all school-age children, and in most of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, schools desperately seek qualified teachers.
According to Deputy Education Minister Patman, some schools have had to hire students from higher grades to fill teaching vacancies. He says his ministry depends heavily on foreign aid to train teachers, provide textbooks, and to build new schools and other facilities.
"Without foreign aid we wouldn't even be able to pay our teachers' salaries," Patman says. "We still need 7,000 new schools. We need at least 5,000 school laboratories. Many of our students still sit on the floor. We need desks and chairs for them. We need new buildings. We have to train qualified teachers. All of these require money and Afghanistan cannot finance this without international assistance."
On the issue of financing, private schools may hold some advantages over their public counterparts.
Abdul Wasir Mirzad, the owner and director of Maftah, founded the school in Parwan Province with $20,000 of his own money.
Convinced there will be no shortage of parents willing to pay for their sons' and daughters' education, Mirzad is already making plans to open several new schools in nearby provinces.
adio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Parwan Province Ahmad Hanaesh contributed to this report
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.