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

Thu, Aug 22, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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