Malaka runs a tight ship. The principal of an all-girls primary school nestled deep in the heartland of Balkh – a mountainous province in Afghanistan – what sets Malaka apart isn’t her formidable management skills. It is the unwavering commitment to her students.
When students can’t afford school supplies, Malaka chips in personally to prevent them from dropping out. When the Provincial Education Directorate asked her to introduce a third shift in her school, Malaka refused. She wasn’t going to compromise learning time for her girls.
More matriarch than administrator, Malaka views herself as a role model for her students – grooming a generation of articulate, empowered women.
“Education isn’t enough,” she told us (the World Bank team), “I make it a point to instill confidence in my girls.”
As a third grader walked us through a challenging math problem – admonishing the adults in the room for having forgotten long division – it was clear confidence wasn’t in short supply.
Malaka is the new face of Afghan educators – capable, committed and tenacious. The country has come a long way since 2001, when less than a million children went to school, and girls were almost entirely excluded. Today, more than eight million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, an eight-fold increase based on Ministry of Education estimates, of which 39 percent are girls.
Only as Strong as the Weakest Link
Despite tremendous progress on enrollment numbers, much work remains. Around a third of the school age population still remain out of school – the majority of which are girls. Despite the tireless efforts of educators like Malaka, the country still has the highest gender disparity in the world at the primary education –71 girls attend for every 100 boys. Only 21 percent of these girls end up completing primary school.
As we visited schools across the province, the systemic bottlenecks were evident. Supply was woefully inadequate – despite schools running multiple shifts, there simply weren’t enough classrooms to meet demand. Students were learning the alphabet in tents, English classes were held on playgrounds, and physics classes were being taught in hallways. Learning materials and textbooks also weren’t reaching schools in many cases, particularly in the higher grades, where students need them the most.
Along with building management capacity and infrastructure, more needs to be done to address the constraints on demand, particularly those related to gender. Like many countries, Afghan girls tend to drop out in secondary school due to cultural barriers, including early marriage practices. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 46 percent of Afghan girls are married by age 18, 15 percent of them before age 15.
Ensuring a safe learning environment can go a long way. Schools that lack boundary walls or sanitation facilities can leave female teachers and students feeling vulnerable.
Stronger engagement with communities will also be crucial. When parents participate in school management committees, known as shuras in Afghanistan, they are much more likely to see schools as safe environments and keep their daughters in school. One entrepreneurial Madrasa we visited had even set up a day-care inside the institute, catering to the children of teachers and students, alleviating key barrier for many women.
Additional efforts are also needed to recruit, train and deploy more female teachers. Only 17 percent of primary school teachers are women, and many districts have no female teachers at all. Educators like Malaka are an exception, not the norm.
With half the population below the age of 15, Afghanistan is one of the youngest countries in the world. Building an educated and skilled workforce is a key priority for the country. To help address this, the World Bank, through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, has been a longstanding partner through EQUIP and EQUIPII – working with the government to broaden access, train teachers and administrators, and build school infrastructure.
The dialogue is now underway to prepare a follow on project to build on the gains made, and continue to support the aspirations of all Afghan girls.
“I hope to be a teacher,” a student told us, “I refuse to sit at home when there is so much I can contribute,”