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Kids around school entrance in Afghanistan.Back to School Day

One of the happiest and most inspirational days in Afghanistan is “Back to School Day” at the end of March. This year, the war-torn impoverished country has much to celebrate.

When schools across the country opened Monday, approximately 10 million children were enrolled, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE)*. Among them were more than 3 million girls.

This is particularly remarkable given that as recently as 2001, only about 1 million students were enrolled in school, and only a handful of them were girls. That dramatic increase represents one of the greatest jumps in school enrollment in any country in modern history.

As school starts this week, I think of all the girls attending school for the first time, girls like 6-year-old Mariam** of the Wakhan Corridor. She probably woke up Monday morning, like every other day, to the crowing of the family rooster around 4:30 or 5 a.m. There are no alarms, snooze buttons, clocks or watches in most Wakhi homes.

Almost immediately someone in the family lit a dim kerosene lantern. The pungent smell of a juniper brush and yak-dung fire in the hearth filled her earthen home. And the children, including Mariam, rushed to get dressed in the cold morning air.

On this special day, I imagine Mariam reaching for her worn woolen knickers, red-felt tunic, and woolen vest just as her mother interrupts her, whispering, “leebaf maktab,” or “school uniform.”

Girl reads to class

It’s Mariam’s dream come true. I envision this little girl stopping in her tracks, her eyes darting across the room until she finds it – her freshly pressed, brand new, black school uniform and white scarf hanging from the door. Her first-ever school uniform. After weeks of nagging her mother for permission to wear her new school clothes, the promised day has finally come.

And then, in a day full of firsts, Mariam joins her siblings and the other village children as they walk down the winding trail to Khushpak Girls’ High School. Her education has begun.

Across the country, Back to School Day is a source of great joy, but it’s also a little bittersweet, said CAI-Afghanistan Director Wakil Karimi.

“I am really enthusiastic to see the girls with black uniforms and white scarves, and boys with gray pants and blue shirt to walk together on 23rd March toward to schools,” he said. “But I also am sad because millions of the children still are deprived of education because of no schools, no facilities, corruption, and security, and we must always fight for those who are illiterate and ignored.”

That fight includes not just increasing enrollment but improving learning environments, the quality of education, and the opportunity to stay in school through university.

Students enter tent school

On Back to School Day in 2002, just after the Taliban government was ousted, students attended classes in about 3,400 “schools” set up in everything from tents to mud rooms, truck containers to brick buildings, and sometimes just a cloth on the ground. There are now about 13,000 schools in Afghanistan (although a significant number are in disrepair or shut down). Yet the country still needs about 5,000 more schools to accommodate the booming population and the estimated 5 million children who are still not in school in Afghanistan.

As Afghanistan’s students begin their new school year, President Ashraf Ghani is in Washington, D.C. During a Monday visit to the Pentagon, Ghani spoke directly to Reese Larson, a 9-year-old girl in the audience whose father is deployed in Afghanistan.

“Reese, I have greetings to you from 3 million Afghan girls who are attending school today,” Ghani said. “Fourteen years ago, there were exactly none. Each one of them wants to entertain the hopes you do, and your dad is making this possible, and remember, he is there to make a difference.”

We at CAI believe that education is the most powerful agent of change in the world. We believe that education will bring stability, prosperity, and peace to Afghanistan. Article 26 of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights states that every child has the right to a free education. Each girl and boy we can collectively put on that path is a victory for humanity and the world.

QUOTE: “Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.” – Edward Everett

– Greg Mortenson, CAI co-founder

* It’s important to note that estimates of the number of children enrolled in Afghanistan’s schools vary widely among international agencies, with the MoE usually coming in at the high end, while estimates from the United Nations and others tend to come in lower.
** Mariam’s name has been changed to protect her and her family.