Afghan girls’ school in Kandahar faces closure as international funds dry up

Guardian, Oct. 15, 2014

Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies

The bus that rumbles through the Kandahar afternoon conveys an unusual load: dozens of teenage girls, their faces hidden behind shuttlecock burqas, creating an excitable hubbub rising above the din of traffic.

It is the daily commute to the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, a rare creation in this conservative city where unmarried girls are rarely allowed out of their homes unchaperoned. Arriving at the school, the girls hug their peers, swap stories like any other teenagers, and prepare for class.

The low monthly tuition fee of $1 (62p) attracts students from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds: they are the daughters of senators, clerics, shopkeepers and doctors. For many, the school is not just a place of learning: it is their only way out. The strictures of southern Afghanistan mean that most women do not see beyond the four walls of their family homes. Many of the girls said that before the school, the only other legitimate reason for leaving their house was to visit their married sisters.

But these daily classes may soon end, as many projects in Afghanistan are running out of money amid an international draw-down that is accelerating this autumn.

The school was founded by Ehsanullah Ehsan in 2006, with help from the Canadian government. When Canadian troops pulled out of Kandahar in 2011, funding responsibility fell to the US state department. That ended in 2013. Just when it looked as if the school would have to close, private donations came through and it managed to stay open for another year. That money runs out this autumn.

The problems facing the school in Kandahar are part of a broader pattern. According to a new study, Britain spent £37bn in Afghanistan in civilian and military aid. That pool of money is shrinking as the focus shifts elsewhere. The cuts have already begun. In January, the US Congress voted to halve development assistance to Afghanistan.

Afghans such as Ehsan, the school principal, lament this new reality. He is baffled that a project that internationals seemed so enthused about just a few years ago, could be abandoned so summarily. The girls have been exposed to nearly a decade of liberal progress, he says. Life after the foreign presence for them is unthinkable. The school has thrived, despite being in a volatile province that suffers 20 insurgent attacks a week, some of them within a few miles of the city outskirts.

Over steamed corn late one evening, Ehsan lists everyone he has asked for funding: the provincial governor (no), the provincial council (no), the ministry of education (no), the ministry of women’s affairs (no), the US embassy (no), the Canadian embassy (no), other local businesses (no, no, no). “Where else should I ask? There is nowhere left for us to go,” Ehsan says.

He has been using his own savings to cover for the months in between funding cycles, but that, too, is coming to an end. His wife’s gold was sold the last time the school ran into financial trouble. So what will he do when the money runs out? “This is a hard question for me,” Ehsan says, putting on a weary smile.

The stress of running the school has taken a physical toll. When he went to hospital this year complaining about weight loss, insomnia and tremors, the doctor told him he should either get a less demanding job or begin taking primidone, an anticonvulsant. Ehsan chose the drug.

When asked why he has not given up, Ehsan mentions Bibi Zhilla, one of his first students. When she arrived at the school eight years ago, she did not know how to use a keyboard or speak a word of English. Having grown up in a traditional Afghan family, she also did not know how to carry on a face-to-face conversation with a member of the opposite sex who was not her brother, father or uncle. “Ehsan’s school was a game changer. Everything I know now I learned from him,” she says.

Now 28, she explains how the skills she learned at the school directly contributed to her getting a job at Unicef. The school taught her what is sometimes referred to as “women’s empowerment”, things she would not have learned anywhere else, but which have proved invaluable: how to send an email and how to negotiate better pay. She also learned about women’s rights – a new concept for her. Today, her job supports a family of 14. She pays for her six younger sisters to go to school.

The school’s bad news is particularly distressing for Zhilla. “We want our sisters to be educated too,” she says. “To get the opportunity we received. They deserve it too. Please consider this a call for help.”

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