The Girls' Education Challenge in Afghanistan: Cautious Optimism from the Field

June 09, 2015Christine Wallace
 

As the Fund Manager for the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC), we are extremely limited in our ability to visit field project locations in Afghanistan. It is designated as too ‘high risk’. For this reason, we held our recent Annual Review workshop with project teams in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. These teams have similar issues in visiting some of their project sites in districts outside the Afghan capital. Security is a daily concern. Our monitors also have difficulties in visiting and increasingly we need to rely on data and information which is difficult to verify. 

That said, there is a huge of amount of information out there that is being generated and it is being transported by donkeys, by 4x4s, by phone and by Internet where possible. This information is telling us about the Community Based Classes (CBCs) being established, the numbers of teachers being trained, girls who are involved in mentoring programmes, communities that have contributed land, space and time to establish schools for their children, and girls and boys whose lives are changing.

The overwhelming feeling is one of optimism - everyone at the workshop feels that their projects are making a difference: that girls who previously had no opportunity to attend a school or who were attending a school intermittently with a teacher who lectured at them, ignoring those who didn't quite understand in favour of those at the front of the class who did, now had the support of their communities to attend school. These girls also now have the understanding of their teacher to help them through difficult concepts and they have the possibility to progress from their community based school into the government hub school and on to secondary or even higher education.

But dig a little deeper and we began to see the challenges that have to be overcome if this possibility is to be realised: Community based schools are becoming very popular. Parents do want their children to go to school and even those most conservative parents are beginning to understand that education for girls is both seen as good in the Quran and a potential good for their community. Nevertheless, in order to have those girls in school, many of their parents need assistance to pay for school uniforms, textbooks, school bags - and to adjust their family responsibilities to allow the girls time to attend to their studies. They need to have a (female) teacher who is often paid by the project. Often, that teacher has not completed a 12th grade education, the minimum level required to be accredited as a government schoolteacher.  She also needs to be trained to understand the curriculum content, as well as the dynamics of the classroom that can be used to include or exclude girls and to work towards increasing what are presently very low levels of learning.

Despite multiple difficulties, many things do seem to be working well whilst our projects are running community based schools and working with teachers in government schools to improve their teaching practices. There are even systems and policies emerging that can cater for nomadic girls who move twice a year with their families and who have previously had little aspiration for anything outside of those yearly migrations with their animals.

But what happens in April 2017 when the GEC stops funding these organisations to provide these services? There are MoUs that state that the government will take on the activities, including enroling girls in government schools, providing teacher salaries and maintaining the new schools that have been built. 

But can that really happen? Are the collective resources there? At the workshop, we heard about one organisation’s experience in handing over schools to government. How resources aren't always available and hub schools can't always cope with the numbers of children, how parents have difficulties in continuing to send their daughters to school because if the handover option is to integrate their girls into the government school then they face the same issues as those which prevented them from attending in the first place - distance, security, quality. While efforts are underway to establish a means for accrediting community based teachers who may have less than the currently required levels of education, these systems are not yet in place. Or they graduate to find there are no girls’ high schools within safe and reachable distance.

So the question is, are we satisfied with having increased education for a number of years for a limited number of girls who may not be able to continue their education? Given the situation, is that what success means in Afghanistan?  Have we succeeded in improving those girls' life chances so much that this investment will have been worthwhile, even though it may not be available for their younger sisters?  Or are there other possibilities?  Can we bring this issue ‘front and center’ and start considering now how to overcome these barriers? Can we use our new found knowledge of each others' projects, our shared issues, challenges and achievements to work together at district, provincial and national levels to begin to address some of these sustainability issues? Could we use the midline to consider a shift in resources away from expansion towards consolidation and sustainability? 

These are all questions that hang in the air. There are undoubtedly useful, measurable, valuable and viable changes going on now. The overwhelming answer to our questions around operating within the context of a high risk environment was the need to be flexible. Perhaps the midline evaluation is the time to put this into practice, to preserve the gains and to consider what may be 'good to have' just now but perhaps dispensable in favour of more sustainability measures or more concerted leverage activities?

Afghanistan projects will not be alone in this.  My next stop is Kenya where the slums, refugee camps and increasingly insecure areas all face similar challenges. I am sure I will encounter similar questions. Midline surveys allow projects to reflect on their successes in beginning implementation and consider the activities that have contributed to those successes but it's also the time when leverage and sustainability issues become more prominent and when we all realise that time is short and there is much to do if the gains we are seeing are to be sustained.

Chris Wallace is Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) Programme Lead. She has been working in international development for the last 30 years for INGOs, UN agencies, DFID and the European Union. She joined the GEC in 2012.
 

Photo Credit: Children in Crisis, Afghanistan

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