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Even While Bombs Rain Down, Schools for Afghan Schools Teach

December 6, 2001
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Despite the war in Afghanistan, clandestine girls’ schools — supported in part by a Jewish group — are still holding classes.

The long-term future of the schools, which serve more than 2,800 girls, is still unknown, but there’s hope that they may be able to come above ground and expand under a post-Taliban regime.

Since 1999, the American Jewish World Service has been one of several U.S. organizations — and the only Jewish one — funding the schools through the grass-roots organization Afghan Institute of Learning and its American partner, Creating Hope International.

In a country where schooling has been illegal for most girls under the Taliban, the Afghan institute sponsors classes in one regular school and 74 home schools.

Between 30 and 80 students generally learn in one room, sitting in rows on the floor. There they learn four languages, as well as geography, math, reading, writing and science. The students enter and leave the school at staggered times to decrease the possibility of detection.

Since its creation in 1995, the institute staff has increased to nearly 400, more than 90 percent of them women.

Despite the war, the program has only lost one teacher, who fled to a refugee camp in Pakistan. None of the schools or other programs has been damaged by the American bombings, Professor Yacoobi, executive director of Creating Hope, said last Friday at a news conference in New York.

Indeed, the institute has been branching out and providing other types of aid.

The group has established a door-to-door health education program, as well as several health-care clinics, in the cities of Jalalabad, Herat and Peshwar.

It also runs a teacher training program, 21 preschools accommodating 400 boys and girls and human rights seminars — as well as classes in sewing and embroidery so women can support themselves.

“We empower women. We try to give them a skill so that they can support themselves and their families,” said Yacoobi, who asked that her first name not be used to maintain her anonymity.

The institute currently is expanding programs in Afghan refugee camps. In only two weeks, they opened 41 new classrooms in the camps, serving 1,500 students.

“The program has been running 24 hours non-stop,”Yacoobi said.

How much women’s rights might improve under a new Afghan government is still unknown. The Northern Alliance, expected to be a major part of a future ruling coalition, has a history of discriminating against women.

Under Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Northern Alliance leader who was president of Afghanistan before the Taliban took over, women could not go out in public unless escorted by male relatives — but schooling for girls was allowed.

Both Rabbani and former King Zahir Shah, another potential leader for the new Afghanistan, have signed pledges supporting the right of women to participate in politics, but some are skeptical.

Women were allotted only a few of the 30 or so seats at the Bonn conference on the future government of Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, women worked in many professions, and 40 percent of Afghan doctors were women, Yacoobi said.

“Everybody has the image of the Afghan woman wearing this burka,” Yacoobi said. “That is not really a woman of Afghanistan, believe me.”

Since 1999, the AJWS has given $100,000 to Yacoobi’s group. It currently is trying to raise additional funds for emergency aid to the camps. With the end of the war imminent, however, both Yacoobi and Ruth Messinger, AJWS executive director, worry that donations will slow.

“In just the last week the response of people is, ‘Yeah, but it’s over now,’ ” Messinger said. “We need to keep educating that these problems are not going to be over quickly.”

For example, Messinger said, roads in Afghanistan still aren’t safe.

“Whatever food other governments and international programs have collected, no one is willing to take it across the borders because none of the areas are secure,” she said.

Even after those problems are solved, the AJWS and the Afghan Institute of Learning believe they need to help Afghan women improve their condition.

“Attention to the needs of women and girls is not going to be first on anyone’s agenda,” Messinger said. “We want to be able to continue to respond.”

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