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In Afghanistan, Education Under Attack

By Helene Gayle
Monday, December 22, 2008

Few things symbolize progress in the fight against poverty better than the face of an educated girl. And I was fortunate enough to see hundreds of them during a trip to Afghanistan in 2006. Those faces, eager and alert, lit up the courtyard of a new school built to educate 1,000 girls in central Afghanistan's Bamian province.

Gone were the days of Taliban rule, when girls were forbidden to study and women weren't allowed to teach. Afghanistan's future leaders could learn -- out in the open.

Perhaps that is why last month's brutal attack on a group of Afghan schoolgirls in the southern city of Kandahar was so heartbreaking. The students were walking to school in uniforms. Two men wielding water pistols drove by on motorcycles and sprayed battery acid.

They took aim at that same symbol of progress, the one that has inspired me and so many others.

At least three of the girls were hospitalized for severe burns on their faces, according to media reports. Afghan authorities later reported that they had arrested 10 Taliban militants in connection with the attack.

One of the girls spoke courageously from her hospital bed, with yellow ointment covering an eye damaged by the acid. "I will go to my school even if they kill me," she told reporters. "My message for the enemies is that if they do this 100 times, I am still going to continue my studies."

The world must stand behind her. The people of Afghanistan, if given the proper support, can produce a generation of educated students -- boys and girls -- capable of lifting their country up again. They overcame so much during the dark period of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Determined Afghans worked alongside humanitarian groups such as CARE to school young girls in homes, community centers and mosques.

Now the forces that would deny girls equal access to education are once again testing the country's resolve. At stake is the momentum built by people working hard to break the cycle of poverty.

Girls account for two-thirds of the children denied primary education around the globe. Yet each year of schooling can boost a girl's future earnings, and that of her family, by 10 to 20 percent. Schooling girls is also a matter of life and death. Children of educated women are 40 percent more likely to live past age 5.

Among Afghan girls, there is no lack of desire. Some walk for hours and sit outside makeshift schools, their heads filled with dreams of becoming doctors and engineers. When CARE opened 10 learning centers in Parwan and Kapisa, nearly 2,000 girls enrolled. Teachers, too, were excited at a chance for new training. Parents listened intently to information on the importance of educating their daughters as well as their sons.

Some, of course, will choose to fight this kind of change. In fact, while I was in Afghanistan, a nearby school was burned to the ground.

But we, too, must fight for the right of girls to reach their full potential and contribute to society. That means working with men and women to make sure their daughters have a safe environment for learning.

That means teaching more girls to read. And write. And to handle acid, not for violent means but scientific ones.

When meeting with those seventh-graders two years ago, I was struck by how many listed their favorite subjects as biology, physics and chemistry. They will face significant hurdles to realize their dreams. Yet, on that day, I felt that I was meeting tomorrow's scientists. There was so much hope. I saw it in their faces.

The writer is president and chief executive of CARE, an international poverty-fighting organization.

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