Public education is among the many casualties of the growing war in Afghanistan, and the threat of violence is especially acute for Afghan girls. Parents, who in the past did not allow their daughters to go to school because of societal taboos, are once again keeping them at home because of the threat of attacks by militants wielding acid or worse.
But many girls are refusing to give up their schooling — no matter what the cost.
The Afghan government, aid groups and defiant teachers are operating public schools as well as secret, in-home classes in a risky effort to ensure that Afghan girls get an education.
Nearly half of the country's children do not attend classes, most of them in the Taliban-rife south, says Afghanistan's education minister, Farouq Wardak. Hundreds of schools have closed in Kandahar and neighboring provinces because of militant attacks and threats.
Acid Attack On Girls, Teachers
Education officials say more often than not, girls in Kandahar and the surrounding provinces simply stay home — especially after attacks such as those last November when men on motorcycles sprayed or poured acid on 11 female students and four teachers as they headed to school in the city.
Shamsia Hosseini was the most badly injured in the attack. The burn marks are still visible on the ninth-grader's face; she needs surgery her family cannot afford. Still, unlike most others who were attacked that day, Shamsia has returned to the Mirwais School for Girls.
She describes what happened to her in a rapid monotone. She says she refuses to dwell on the attack, and she is clearly still traumatized.
Shamsia goes to the front of the cavernous classroom and reads a passage in Dari from a well-worn textbook. But she quickly falls apart.
"I can't do this," she mutters, and returns to her seat.
Staying Home Not The Answer
The younger students at her school are more enthusiastic. In a UNICEF tent that serves as a classroom, 8-year-old Shazia points to Quranic verses on the chalkboard and reads them aloud for her classmates to repeat as a fighter jet flies overhead.
Their teacher, Sadigha Rezaie, puts on a brave face for the children. But inside, she, like most teachers, is frightened.
"It's very unsafe in the city. Every time you walk to school, you're looking behind your back to see if a motorcycle is following you. And it's even scarier because we're with these little girls," she says.
Education Continues In Private Homes
There is another option for the girls of Kandahar.
In the walled courtyard of her parents' house in Kandahar, 17-year-old Marzia Sadat teaches a Dari language course. Her students, who range in age from 14 to 40, all wear their opaque burkas in class on a recent day, guarding their anonymity against Western visitors.
The youngest, Amina, says her parents have always refused to let her go to school because of the threats. But they agreed to let her attend this class because it takes place inside a neighbor's home.
The 10-month course is similar to secret classes Afghan girls attended during the 1990s, when educating girls was banned under the Taliban. But now, the effort is sanctioned by the Afghan government and funded by international groups like the World Food Program and the Canadian International Development Agency.
Afghan supervisors, who asked they not be taped or named for fear of reprisals, say they started about 200 of these in-home courses two years ago.
Clandestine Classes Keep Hope Alive
Today, the number of classes exceeds 400, each with about 30 students. To help coax families into sending their girls, students are given wheat, cooking oil and salt.
Teachers, such as Sadat, receive no salary but instead receive food staples, too. Sadat says she doesn't mind because her aim is to make sure her country doesn't fall to militants.
"I want to serve my nation and my country. If the militants kill me, so be it. I pray to God as do my mother and father and that gives me the strength not to be afraid," she says.
Sadat says her efforts are paying off. Her student, Amina, says she is determined to stay in school so she can become a nurse or doctor someday.
Threats, Options For One Girl
Fourteen-year-old Golalai Achakzai doesn't attend school — and hasn't for nearly 18 months, she says, because her father won't let her go, although her situation is different from most Afghan girls.
Her father, Darweza Achakzai, is a dual Afghan-German citizen and chemistry professor who returned to his native Kandahar to teach.
Achakzai looks sadly at the shy teenager he adopted in Afghanistan. He fiddles with his worry beads as he explains in German to a visitor that he has no choice but to keep her home.
"People assume I'm rich because of the fact I moved here from Germany. So she's a target for kidnappers. They'll cut off one of her hands and send it to me and tell me to pay a ransom if I want her back," Achakzai says.
Such fears are founded. The professor's late wife, Sitara, who served on Kandahar's provincial council, was gunned down earlier this month in front of their home. Achakzai says the only hope for his daughter's education is for them to leave Afghanistan, which he plans to do next month.
It's an answer for this family, but not an option for countless other girls in Kandahar.