KABUL, 13 February (IRIN) - Remember the name Mursal. One day the 13-year-old Afghan girl is going to be president of her country, she says. Right now, though, she's just started school for the first time in her life.
"I am very happy to be in school. Some of my friends are not going and are playing, but I want to come to school," she told IRIN in the capital, Kabul.
At a time when most schools are closed for winter, Mursal is one of 16,000 Kabul children still going to classes in an effort to make up for the years of lost education.
Just as she was set to begin school as a six-year-old, the Taliban came and banned girls' education, and she ended up spending six years as a refugee in Pakistan. There, she was unable to go to school, and even when she returned to Afghanistan in September she could not join a classroom due to a requirement that all children had to show a 50 percent attendance record for the previous year, or wait until the next school year began.
But then a joint project between the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC and the Afghan education ministry ensured that 160 Kabul schools stayed open over the three-month winter break to accommodate pupils such as Mursal and enable them to catch up on their studies by the time the new school year starts in March.
For three hours every morning at the Abdul Ghafnoor Nadim School in Kabul, Mursal sits jammed three to a desk that was only designed for two, and learns the Dari language, mathematics and about religion. Her two precious schoolbooks are carefully covered in "Best Wishes" wrapping paper and plastic to protect them.
In the same class, 16-year-old Basmina is also revelling in her first chance to go to school, thanks to the winter programme. "Coming to school is the best part of my day," she told IRIN. Before, her days were taken up by washing dishes, scrubbing clothes and helping with the cooking. Now, when she goes home, she revises what she has learnt in the morning before helping around the house. Her sights are set on becoming a doctor.
BRAC's education programme manager, Shahidul Hasan, told IRIN in Kabul that the idea for winter catch-up classes in Afghanistan came from BRAC's experience in Bangladesh. "Many children had dropped out, because there were no schools, or they were too far away." Children there were put into special accelerated learning classes so they could make up for the time they had lost.
In Afghanistan, where more than two decades of war has disrupted education, the need for extra tuition was crucial, he said. "When we came to Afghanistan, we found a lot of children absent from schools, and many returnees had never gone to school in Pakistan or Iran."
So, after discussions late last year, BRAC trained 636 teachers to help keep the Kabul schools open over the traditional holiday period. They had been swamped with children wanting to take advantage of the extra opportunity, and turned away twice as many as they could take. Already, the organisation has a plan to expand the programme to 2,000 schools across the country in areas where there have been low enrolment rates.
The UNICEF communication officer in Kabul, Edward Cawardine, told IRIN about US $250,000 had been put into the winter schools programme, with UNICEF contributing cash and materials. "The enthusiasm for the programme shows that Afghans haven't lost faith in education as a way to improve their future."
The organisation is already preparing for the new school year, and estimates about 4 million children will enter classrooms in March, an increase of a million over 2002. This is out of a total school population of about 4.5 million.
Cawardine said there were a number of reasons why up to 500,000 Afghan children would continue to miss out on education, including difficulties getting to schools, a lack of teachers, and families feeling it was more beneficial for their children to work than go to school. One other reason is lingering conservative opposition to girls attending classes.
But despite some sporadic attacks on schools last year, the UNICEF information officer, Chulho Hyun, said, he was hopeful that the new school year would get under way without any disruption. "Our concern is that if attacks did happen again, it could interrupt the momentum that has been built up over the last year." To counter this, it was vital to work with communities and build on the obvious enthusiasm for education, especially for girls, he said.
Back at Abdul Ghafnoor Nadim School, a separate programme is revealing how desperate Afghan children are for education. The government-run scheme allows children to attend extra classes over winter for less than $1 a month to further advance their learning. Already 400 students have enrolled for the classes at this school, with more coming every day.
Sixteen-year-old Mohammad Parviz told IRIN he would rather be in school learning geometry than be out with his friends during the holidays. "Last year I was top of the fifth class. Why should I waste my time playing when I can carry on studying and stay at the top of my class?"
A teacher, Sohaila Forugh, said she was thrilled to see so many children taking the opportunity for extra classes over winter. She herself did virtually no teaching when the Taliban were in control of the country, and is now trying her hardest to help the children who also missed out on school for up to six years.
With her chalk in a battered Nivea tin and reading from a book to a class of 30 girls getting their first taste of education, her enthusiasm is obvious. "Take our voice to the world. We've lost so many years of education, and tell them that we were doing nothing for six years, but now we will go forward and study," she told IRIN.
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