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Losing The Battle For Young Minds In Afghanistan

The graduation ceremony of 24 high-school women students in Paktia Province in 2010.
The graduation ceremony of 24 high-school women students in Paktia Province in 2010.

Underinvestment in secondary schooling is a growing security threat for the residents of Shwak, Wuza Zadran, and Gerda Seray.

Despite the millions poured into educational development by international donors, these three remote districts in restive Paktia Province have not produced a single high-school graduate in the past 14 years.

Paktia is known for its relatively high standard of education -- this year, it sent the third-highest number of students to state universities across the country. Currently, 15 religious madrasahs and 353 state schools operate in the province, according to data made available by the local Education Directorate. Out of these facilities, 98 are high schools. Nearly 200,000 pupils, including 60,000 girls, attend the schools.

But this progress has evaded pupils in Shwak, Wuza Zadran, and Gerda Seray, which have seen frequent school closures in response to “armed insurgents who threaten families if they send their children to school,” says Education Directorate head Shahabudin Mohad.

The districts are home to the Zadran tribe and known as a haven for the Haqqani network, one of the more than dozen insurgent groups active along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Traversed by mountain ranges, the districts face a dearth of clean water and health facilities and have high unemployment rates. Local residents earn a meager living by producing lumber and picking pine nuts. Many become migrant laborers in Persian Gulf countries, sending remittances to their families back in Paktia.

“We have tried several times to send professional teachers to these districts, but because of the hardship of life there, the teachers were unwilling to go and threatened to resign if pushed,” Mohad says.

But local teachers and residents say security in the troubled districts has recently improved. They say widespread corruption in the provincial Education Directorate is the main reason for the underdevelopment.

“There are no teachers in these districts. The salaries allocated for them go into private pockets,” says Wuza Zadran resident Amanullah Khan Zadran, who served as border and tribal affairs minister during Hamid Karzai’s presidency.

Last year, local media reported the disappearance of nearly $300,000 in education funding, but the provincial government rejected allegations of misuse. Mohad, who took over the directorate five months ago, says he has devised a plan to improve conditions in the three districts.

"If things continue in this fashion, then in the future the people of this area could become a big headache for the government,” warns Niaz Mir, one of thousands of Wuza Zadra residents whose children are growing up without an education.