Thu, Aug 22, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Women’s schools in Afghanistan struggle as US aid shrinks

The US budget cuts fuel fears among some Afghans that Western governments are turning their backs on Afghanistan as NATO soldiers leave the country

By Emma Graham-Harrison  /  The Guardian, KABUL

The US has stopped funding a charity that educates some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable abuse victims, including a tortured child bride and a teenager scarred by acid for refusing to marry a militia commander.

The decision to end financing for Aid Afghanistan for Education (AAE), which provides schools for girls and women excluded from government classrooms, came despite a pledge last month to spend US$200 million on “women’s empowerment” as foreign troops head home.

Since funds were cut off this spring teachers have been leading classes for free in the hope that the charity’s director, Hassina Sherjan, can cobble together funds to pay their modest US$140 monthly wages before they have to find new jobs.

It is not the only educational institution to lose US government funds as Washington’s generous aid budget shrinks. It is down by about 50 percent from a 2010 peak and the impact of the cuts is fueling fears among some Afghans that as NATO soldiers leave, their governments are turning their backs on Kabul.

The Afghanistan Technical Vocational Institute, which helps combat youth unemployment and a woeful lack of professional skills, is another organization now “running on fumes,” according to its founder and director Sardar Roshan, a former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan.

His teachers have worked for months without a salary and students chipped in to pay for their graduation this year after funding ended last year.

Roshan said promises of a new grant produced only limited cash for “capacity building.” The US embassy denies promising more cash.

In 2010, Washington’s development agency, USAid, spent US$145 million on Afghan education — this year it has requested less than US$100 million.

Part of the problem that has trapped the vocational school and the women’s education charity is a commitment by all foreign donors to channel more aid money through the government. Their aim is to improve ministers’ ability to handle funds, after years of watching the money pass through a virtual parallel administration run by foreign aid organizations.

USAid said both organizations were told in advance that their funding would be terminated or cut and that they could compete for US$56 million of funds in a community-based education project and US$35 million for technical and vocational education, all distributed by the Afghan Ministry of Education.

The education ministry intended to fund the vocational institute, said a spokesman, Amanullah Aiman, pointing out that it was built on government land. Technical problems were delaying funds and the institute’s management was unhappy as there would be less money than USAid provided, he added.

He declined to comment on AAE, saying he was not familiar with the organization.

AAE began as an underground network of classrooms after the Taliban halted all female schooling and it grew to be a lifeline for women whose education was cut off by the ban, by poverty or by early marriage. An annual budget of about US$1.5 million is needed to pay for 13 schools in nine provinces, totaling more than 3,200 pupils. Some, in rural areas, are the only women’s classrooms for kilometers.

“I am glad that this kind of school exists, because we will not be accepted in other ones,” said Sahar Gul, a girl who was married at 12, and then chained up and tortured by her in-laws for refusing to work as a prostitute.

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