Iain Guest

Iain founded AP in 2001 after many years of writing about and working with civil society in countries in conflict. He was a Geneva-based correspondent for the London-based Guardian and International Herald Tribune (1976-1987); authored a book on the disappearances in Argentina; fronted several BBC documentaries; served as spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia (1992) and the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti (2004); served as a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace (1996-7); and conducted missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for the UN, USAID and UNHCR. Iain recently stepped down as an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he taught human rights.

At the Fatima Zahra School, Jalalabad

22 Oct

Jalalabad, October 22: I have to visit all the classrooms at Fatima Zahra, and by the time we reach the lower grades the classes have ended and they’re only waiting for me out of courtesy. They’re remarkably well-behaved, but I’m also reminded that they need to eat. Anyone over the age of 12 is fasting because we are still in Ramadan. But these little ones need their lunch.

As the older classes leave, two new ones take their place. The school is chronically short of space, like so many Afghan schools, and the girls were forced to wait patiently outside for the entire morning until a room came free. They kept themselves busy by reading and doing homework.

The shortage of space is a source of frustration to the headmaster, but not nearly as frustrating as the lack of money. He would like to hire a specialist teacher for the older girls, to teach them subjects like economics or law, but that would cost him at least $140 a month – over three times the average salary paid to his current staff.

One reason is that foreign NGOs and UN agencies have snapped up all school graduates, particularly those with language skills. An Afghan woman who speaks good English can command a salary of up to $1,000 a month. It makes one wonder whether these agencies are really helping to rebuild Afghanistan.


I imagine there are many reasons for the success of the Fatima Zahra school, not least the fact that the headmaster is much respected in the community. But when all is said and done, it’s the women teachers – and their long association with Fatima Zahra – who make the difference.

This becomes clear when we return past the nearby government school that we visited earlier in the day. Unlike Fatima Zahra, this school only offers girls’ education up to the fourth grade (aged 12) because it has no women teachers. And it has no women teachers because it has no building that provides women with privacy and security.

Fatima Zahra offers a better education than this government school, and it has been functioning for far longer. Yet Fatima Zahra cannot get registered by the government. This could jeopardize its achievements, and even force it to close down once Omid’s grant runs out.

Sadiqa has visited the Provincial Ministry of Education in Jalalabad many times and been told that the government cannot register two schools within four kilometers of each other. But the government school serves an area of 4,000 families, and we are told that it has over 2,000 students. This is lower than the 5,000 we heard earlier in the day but – with 35 teachers – still impossibly crowded. Fatima Zahra has just 193 students, and even it is bursting at the seams.

Both schools are needed and both should be registered by the government. Afghanistan cannot afford to lose a successful school because of a rule that makes no sense.


We make this argument when we visit the office of the Mr Hanif Gurdiwal, Provincial Minister of Education. Mr. Gurdiwal is newly arrived from Kabul and appears to be almost as harassed as his teachers. His office is a huge room, with a high vaulted ceiling. The Minister sits at a large desk, with his staff ranged around the walls. He is the only one wearing a business suit. His staff are dressed in traditional Afghan robes.

The Minister has 330 schools in his jurisdiction. 204 are primary schools, and of these just 38 are serving girls, so he knows what’s at stake. He has visited Fatima Zahra twice and was impressed by what he saw. He has forwarded the school’s details to Kabul, with a recommendation that it be registered, but heard nothing. There are three other schools that he would like to register as a matter of urgency.

Mr Gurdiwal is certainly more of an ally than his predecessor, who basically shut the door in Sadiqa’s face, but it’s still not clear whether he carries enough clout to take on his own government here in Jalalabad or in Kabul.

In Kabul, the entire schools registration process in Kabul has been blocked for months. Here in his own ministry, his staff treat him with solemn respect, but they have seen many ministers come and go.

And only one of the ministry’s 60 employees is a woman. This probably has to change if girls’ education is to get a fair hearing.

Filed under: Afghanistan | Tagged: Afghanistan, education, girls’ school, human rights | Leave a comment »

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Oct 22nd, 2005

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