During a visit to Japan the minister attended a symposium on education in Afghanistan May 31 and met Mrs. Sadako Ogata, the President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other government officials and experts.
The minister said Afghanistan had made major educational strides since the Taliban was overthrown in late 2001. Since then, the number of students has risen from 900,000 to some six million. The number of teachers increased from 21,000 to 143,000, and more than 5,000 new schools had been established to bring the national total to nearly 8,400.
International attention has focused on girls education since they were banned from attending regular schools during the previous regime. Now, the minister said, some two million girls attend school, around 35 percent of the student population, and 28 percent of teachers are women.
Despite some reports of a 'backlash' against female education, Minister Atmar insisted that the problem surrounding girls was not cultural or social but 'practical' and "the situation is changing so dramatically that in a couple of years time this will not be an issue."
He cited a survey of parents, particularly of girls who were still not attending school, and said this clearly showed they were not restrained because of cultural or religious considerations but principally because of the lack of resources.
Parents said that "they will send girls to classes if there are schools nearby and if there are female teachers to teach them," the minister said. "Once we tackle these problems, the girls will go to school. This so-called backlash should not be blown out of proportion."
He acknowledged security remain a major problem. Last year 85 students, teachers, and administrators were killed, 187 schools were burned down, and 350 closed. But, he said, this situation would rapidly improve.
"I hope over the coming months rather than years, things will begin to improve," he said in an interview. "We do face some difficult years before we can fully succeed. For education, I would say we need a maximum of five years."
In addition to terrorism, the country faces other enormous problems. Eleven million people are illiterate and 90 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day. Nearly half the school population has still not enrolled. Some 5,000 schools have no adequate buildings and an additional 73,000 classrooms need to be constructed. No new textbooks have been developed for secondary schools, trying to cater to Islamic needs in the system is an ongoing headache, and the entire education administrative system needs a major overhaul.
Minister Atmar said he hoped Japan would be a major partner in the country's recently developed five-year education plan even though he acknowledged that Tokyo's Official Development Assistance (ODA) was shrinking. During talks with Mrs. Ogata she told him "We have to do something about this problem." Education is a major priority for JICA which is committed to reaching the eight UN Millennium Development Goals, including higher educational standards, by 2015.
Afghanistan hoped for three things from Japan, according to the Minister:
- "The government has a five year education plan. We want you to become a long term and 'predictable' partner for those five years. Predictability is important because knowing what assistance is available will allow us to plan for the future.
- We would ask for a 'scaling up' of Japanese investment. In the last five years Japanese assistance was around $1.2 billion, with less than two percent devoted to education. Given the importance of education, that is not enough.
- "Everyone must stick to the agreed plan. Once Japan is a long-term partner, stick to the plan."
Minister Atmar added: "I have no doubt Afghanistan will rise again and overcome its problems. But the next few years will be difficult years."