KABUL: Despite billions of dollars in aid and government funding over the past decade, Afghanistan still has about four million school-age children out of school, officials told IRIN, the UN information unit.
"Overall our biggest challenge is our operating budget, which is not enough to cover the salaries of our teachers... and of the roughly 14,000 primary and secondary schools in the country, some 7,000 lack buildings, forcing children to study in the open, under trees or in tents," Education Ministry spokesman Aman Iman said.
Mir Khan, 10, a pupil at a primary school in Argu District in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, said his school did not have a building or even a wall around the compound, making learning difficult.
"My class is very close to the main road - in a tent. Sometimes even stray dogs get in," Khan told IRIN. "Passing cars blow dust into our tent, which gets into our clothes, hair and even notebooks. I really do not want to go to school, but what can I do? My family is forcing me to go."
The Education Ministry's budget is 15 percent of the government's budget, but 67 percent of all civil servants come under the Education Ministry, placing intolerable strains on the ministry's budget, said Iman.
"We have made good progress in the last 10 years with support from our international partners, but still it is not enough," he told IRIN, adding that the shortage of professional teachers was "another serious problem".
In 2002, Afghanistan had 3,400 primary and secondary schools, but that number has risen to 14,000 countrywide. The goal, according to the Afghan Education Strategy, is to increase that to 17,000 by 2014 and to 23,000 schools by 2020. By 2020, every Afghan child should have access to school, says the strategy. Observers say this is a tall order.
Currently, only eight million of the 12 million school-age children are in school, according to the Education Ministry.
A major impediment to education is conflict. Some 500 schools are still closed in insecure southern and eastern areas due to fighting, assassinations and threats against teachers and students by different anti-government elements, according to the Ministry of Education. With the help of tribal elders, the ministry has reopened around 200 schools in the southern and eastern regions in the last couple of years. But in Zabul Province, in the south, 160 are still closed. According to Shir Agha Safi, Education Ministry director in Zabul, only 25 have reopened in different districts over the past year.
Countrywide, the Education Ministry estimates that closures have deprived more than 400,000 schoolchildren of an education. "We are very concerned that hundreds of thousands of our children can't go to school due to insecurity," Iman said.
Taliban not keeping their word?
Commenting on the Taliban, Iman said: "Officially the Taliban have never taken responsibility for any threat against schools, teachers or students, and they have repeatedly said they were not against education. But in insecure parts of the country we have got unidentified enemies."
In March Taliban "supreme leader" Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a decree instructing insurgents not to attack schools and intimidate schoolchildren. However, in some provinces the Taliban do not seem to have kept their word.
Shahi Mohammad from Arghandab District, Zabul Province, for example, recently left his home after the Taliban threatened to close all the schools in the area.
"I am a farmer and illiterate, but my biggest desire is to educate my children," Shahi, a father of four, told IRIN in Kabul as he looked for an apartment to rent. "But my desire wouldn't be fulfilled if we lived in my village any longer."
The Taliban and its factions - the Haqqani network, Hizb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Tora Bora Front, the Latif Mansur Network and Jamat Sunat al-Dawa Salafia - are also known to be recruiting children into their ranks.
According to the UN, such recruitment was observed throughout the country in 2010, with some children being used to carry out suicide attacks, plant explosives and transport munitions.