In a small, sunlit classroom in a public school in western Kabul, a group of 25 girls, sitting on wooden chairs and leaning on the tables, repeat lines from their Dari textbooks. Following the recitation of their teacher, the students’ voices echo across the poorly-lit corridor of the school, creating a pleasant environment of learning. These students, between 9 and 11 years old, study in the fourth grade.
“I study with a lot of passion so that I will become a doctor and treat my people,” says 9-year-old Fatima, who wears black school uniform and a white headscarf. “I love studying because it’s how we can guarantee a bright future for ourselves and our country.”
Fatima is one of millions of school students who attend school every day, from the caves of Bamyan to the dusty deserts of Kandahar. This is a number that forms almost one third of the population of the country.
Education in post-Taliban Afghanistan is one of the most significant achievements of the country. During the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan had less than 900,000 students—all of them boys. Today the number has increased more than tenfold, with girls forming almost 38 percent—3.5 million—of students. These students study in furnished classrooms, caves, tents, tree shades, and even under harsh sun in impoverished parts of the country.
According to the Ministry of Education, 9.5 million Afghan children attended school in 2016, an all-time high enrolment and a revolutionary 1,188% increase in students since 2001. University enrollment has also increased to an all-time high of 300,000 students. 2016 alone saw an enrollment increase of 1.1 million school students.
This is a revolutionary achievement that can be attributed to the generous assistance of the international community, supportive policies of the Afghan government and, most importantly, the desire of the Afghan people to be constructive members, rather than a burden on, society.
Education is the second highest area of government spending, second only to security. Since its establishment in late 2014, one of the National Unity Government’s primary focuses has been upgrading education in the country. According to the Ministry of Education, the government has worked to enhance the infrastructure supporting students, with 1,720 schools—11 percent of Afghanistan’s total schools—built since 2014. In 2015, the government provided more than 900,0000 jeribs—or more than 440,000 acres—of land for building new schools. Students study a nationally standardized curriculum and the government distributed 35 million textbooks in 2015. Teacher training programs trained nearly 82,000 teachers across 48 teacher training centers in 2015. As part of an attempt to increase the presence of female teachers across the country, the government, with the help of international donors, started a program in which they have deployed 300 female teachers to provinces facing a lower presence of female teachers. These teachers will not only teach classes, but will also train new female teachers, with the goal of improving the teacher gender balance.
Mujib Mehrdad, spokesperson of the Ministry of Education, says, “We believe the only way to establish peace, security and prosperity in this country is to nurture a new, educated generation. The government of Afghanistan has therefore put much of its emphasis on expansion and improvement of education in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan’s achievement in the realm of higher education is another success story. Since 2001, not only has the capacity of existing universities expanded significantly, but 124 private universities have been established—something that did not exist under the Taliban. These universities, most operating on early morning or evening shifts, offer the opportunity for both full-time students and the working class to advance their knowledge.
“Since I work at an international organization, I can’t attend public universities because of the limited space they have for the evening shift classes. I enrolled in Kardan University and study from 5:00 AM to 8:00 AM—something that allows me to study and also work, says 25-year-old Hamid Amanzad.” He adds, “As an Afghan I feel proud because Afghanistan may be the only country in the region where the doors of most of the private universities open at 4:00 in the morning and close at 10:00 in the evening. This will mark the future of our country, not violence and corruption.”
The national gains in the realm of education can be described not only by quantity but also quality. National experts review the education curriculum once in three years and incorporate new changes to keep textbooks up to date. Afghanistan’s public and private universities, for the first time in the history, have started Master’s degree classes. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Asia Foundation, 72 percent of citizens are satisfied with available educational opportunities.
“After three decades of war, we have stepped into a period of progression,” says Roya Hashimi, a teacher in a Kabul city school. “The educational curriculum in Afghanistan is much better than the time I was a student. This, and watching the kids coming to school with so much enthusiasm, makes me hopeful for the future of Afghanistan.”
In large part due to increased access and quality of education, literacy has dramatically increased in recent years, rising from 12 percent in 2001 to 38 percent today. The government has initiated more than 15,000 literacy courses across the country, with 411,843 students at these centers in 2015. The government has also broadcast 28 radio and 22 television educational programs, in an effort to increase the presence of educational materials outside of classrooms. While literacy has dramatically improved across the country, literacy rates remain low, and the government is mapping out a five-year plan to further tackle illiteracy.
While student enrolments are at an all-time high and the state of education has dramatically improved since 2001, Afghanistan has much work to do before all eligible students are enrolled in and attend school, and all students are offered high-quality educations. With the commitment of the government and continued support of the international community, Afghanistan can provide high-quality, universal education to the future doctors, politicians, teachers and caretakers of the country.
“What makes me hopeful about the future of the country is not peace talks with the Taliban, not improvement of our foreign policy and not our economic growth despite all difficulties,” says Mujeeb Mehrdad. “What actually makes me hopeful for the future is the increasing number of kids going to school in all 34 provinces of the country.”