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

At the time of her rescue she was illiterate.

“I feel a lot of positive change, I am in fourth grade now,” she added, sitting in the sun beside classmate Mumtaz, a teenager burned by an acid attack after she refused to marry a militia commander.

Nine women from a shelter for abused women study at the school, alongside pupils such as 23-year-old Shaima, who was forced to drop out when she married and is now a mother of two.

The head teacher has been honest with her students about the financial crisis they face.

“We are worried, because this is the only place we can study, we are married or too old for other schools,” Shaima said. “Life is meaningless without education.”

Sherjan said the lack of funding felt particularly bitter after the US embassy last month unveiled a US$200 million “Promote” project to support women’s education and employment. She was told her organization would not be eligible for a grant.

The international community has promised about US$4 billion a year in aid for Afghanistan until 2016 and the two organizations need less than US$5 million a year to run large programs with a strong track record tackling two fundamental challenges: education and youth employment.

However, in a sea of promises, they simply cannot find the hard cash.

“USAid says go to the [education] ministry, the ministry says they have no money, go to USAid,” Roshan said with a grim smile.

Sherjan, an Afghan American, set up her schools to help girls excluded from the mainstream education system. She is in talks with officials to integrate the 13 schools, but it could take several years.

“We don’t come under the ministry structure because they don’t have a program like this,” Sherjan said in front of a study displaying a Harvard degree certificate and tributes to the work of an organization she left a comfortable life in the US to build up.

Sherjan said she would eventually like to wean the project off foreign aid, but the education ministry was not yet willing to absorb the schools and domestic philanthropy in Afghanistan had not kept pace with the dramatic increase in personal wealth.

“You really have to educate the private sector ... that social entrepreneurship is maybe a better thing than buying another house in Dubai,” she said.

At present, there is a campaign through the crowd-funding Web site Indiegogo to raise the bare minimum to keep the schools functioning.

For women’s activists the funding shortfall is being interpreted as another warning sign that, even if substantial Western aid money keeps flowing, as attention shifts elsewhere, hard-won ground could be lost.

“There is no money for programs such as AAE, which have been there for years and are actually sustainable, but they have all these unrealistic programs,” said Wazhma Frogh, a prominent activist who is also a member of the charity’s board.

“If you take the money away from a school which is the only hope for women in the area, how can you say you are committed to the women of Afghanistan?” Frogh asked.

Additional reporting by Mokhtar Amiri

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