The location of Afghanistan astride the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and central Asia has enticed conquerors throughout history

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Two parallel educational systems function in Afghanistan. Traditional Islamic madrassa found in towns and villages teach children basic moral values and ritual knowledge through the study of the Holy Koran, the Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), and popular edited religious texts. Higher level madrassa located in Herat, Kunduz, Ghazni, Kandahar and Kabul were known as important learning centers. Leading religious leaders also attended famous madrassa in India such as the renowned establishment located at Deoband.

The older generation was educated in madrassa or privately at home. The modern educational system was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century by the government which used it as a means to convince traditionalists of the compatibility of Islam with modernization. This system was subsequently expanded with the continued assistance of France, Germany, Turkey, India, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1935, education was declared universal, compulsory and free. With its expansion, the secular system came to be regarded as the principle medium for creating a national ideology and emphasized productive skills while effectively limiting Islamic studies to ritual knowledge. By the 1960s, technical education assumed critical importance because of the surge in development.

Beginning as early as the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901), considerable attention was paid to extending secular elementary schools, lycees and vocational schools to the rural areas. Nevertheless, education remained primarily the prerogative of upper urban groups. By the 1960s as the expanding government apparatus required more bureaucrats, ninety percent of all school graduates were employed by government with the result that the educated tended to be seen by villagers as government officials. Graduates of madrassa sought careers as religious functionaries or judges.

Since 1978, however, a steady decline has all but demolished the educational infrastructure. Afghanistan in 1996 had the highest illiteracy rate in Asia, for both men and women.


As with other sectors, statistics are difficult to confirm. Since 1978, particularly, validated nation-wide data have been impossible to obtain with the result that official figures on which much recently published data are based should be employed with great caution.

Nevertheless, pre-war trends when the literacy rate was estimated at 11.4 percent ( 18.7 percent male; 2.8 female), persist and provide useful patterns reflected in the present. Then, as now, economic, regional and gender bias was very noticeable. Urban-rural and regional disparities are still valid. In urban settings 25.9 percent (35.5 percent male; 14.8 percent female) of the population six years old and over were literate, but in rural areas literate accounted for only 8.8. percent (15.7 percent male; 0.6 percent female, in some provinces 0.1 percent). Regionally, 32 percent of the students attending schools in 1978 lived in the Central region around Kabul, compared with only 3.8 percent living in the East Central mountains of Bamiyan and Ghor. Contrasting 1993 official figures giving an overall literacy rate of 29.8 percent (45.2 percent males; 13.5 percent females) assumes that expanded educational efforts during the intervening years were effective. In reality the bulk of the students represented in the enrollment figures remain functionally illiterate.

Administrative Structure

Although now in shambles, a skeleton education infrastructure based on the past partially remains. Children from age seven attended six years of primary school, three years of middle and three years of secondary school. Most middle and secondary schools were segregated by sex, while primary and higher education were coeducational. The system was, and is, administered centrally through the Ministry of Education which is solely responsible for policy, management and administration, including curriculum and textbooks. Provincial directorates of education are nominally responsible for local administration, but few standard polices apply because of the establishment of a variety of regional authorities since 1992.


A demographic survey conducted in 1976 estimated that 81 percent of the population over six (71 percent male; 93 percent female) had never attended school. Attendance of school-age children declined markedly in the higher grades: primary 30 percent (51 percent male; 8.6 percent female); middle 12 percent (21 percent male; 3.0 percent female); secondary 7 percent (12 percent male; 2 percent female). Although low, this represented more than a two-fold increase from the mid-1960s. Since the war, however, drop-out rates have continued to rise while school completion rates fall, especially among females. By 1990, even official figures record a substantial decline in primary schools: a drop of 84 percent in the number of boys schools; a 72 percent drop for girls. This reflected the physical destruction caused by the war, the refugee exodus, and the scarcity of teachers, a high proportion of whom, male and female, settled in third countries.


Numbers do not tell the full story. The concept that curriculum should be designed so as to enable students to function fully in their own worlds was never understood. For the majority of village children the knowledge they gained at school had scant relevance to their lives and provided little of benefit to compensate for time spent in school. For boys, meaningful learning experiences took place in the fields with their fathers; for girls, at home with mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Rural Afghans for the most part consequently viewed formal education with profound indifference before the war. In addition, since there were are no reading materials to sustain interest, a large percentage of those who dropped out of the system lapsed quickly into illiteracy. Even instruction in reading and writing was weak, causing a disturbing lack of language skills among those pursuing higher studies.

With the advent of invasion and war, many residing in communities outside the control of the Kabul government or in refugees settlements came to view secular education as an alien Western imposition contradicting Islamic values; the road along which communism was brought to Afghanistan; an instrument of Sovietization. This attitude mellowed over the years as many refugees observed the benefits of education, but the curricula developed for refugee children was highly politicized and filled with war messages. Attempts by NGOs to include subjects pertaining to practical life skills, basic health, simple agriculture, environment and cultural awareness were met with indifference by the authorities. The war messages have been discarded but little else has changed. There is still no agreement on curricula despite two years of concerted efforts by the NGOs to arrive at a consensus with local authorities. As a result, several systems are employed.

Teacher Training

Traditional teaching methods seek to ensure memory retention through rote. This method may also be noted in many secular schools in spite of a pre-war network of well-established teacher training institutes in Kabul and major provincial centers which provided 2-year and 4-year courses largely for primary teachers. The Faculty of Education at Kabul University taught pedagogy and administration; other faculties trained teachers in general knowledge and specialized subjects such as literature and languages, geophysics, social science, archaeology, and theology.

Afghan women have always been attracted to the teaching profession because it is regarded as a culturally acceptable career for women. After the war began in 1978, however, many qualified teachers, male and female, opted for resettlement abroad. NGOs seek to fill this gap, but because of limited allocations of funds, salaries are mostly months in arrears, trained male teachers often prefer to work as day laborers while female teachers, even before the Taliban banned women from schools, worked without pay, or stayed at home.

Higher Education

Academic and higher technical education opportunities were well-developed by 1978. The first college of Medicine opened in Kabul in 1932 and later faculties were joined to form Kabul University in 1946; women were admitted in 1960; and all faculties were brought to a central campus in 1964. Kabul University extended its facilities by opening the Nangarhar Faculty of Medicine in Jalalabad in 1963 which formed the nucleus of Ningrahar University in 1964 which has been called the Ningrahar Islamic University since 1992. In addition, over the years increasing numbers of students, male and female, studied abroad.

Support for the university's faculties came from many international sources, including the United States. In 1969 Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin opened the Polytechnic Institute in Kabul where the curriculum included engineering, geology, mineral, oil and gas exploitation, roads and industrial construction, hydroelectric networks and city planning. Later, during the tenure of the PDPA governments, Balkh University (1986), Herat University (1988), and Kandahar University (1991) were established. In the mid-1990s, institutions were opened in Baghlan, Takhar and Bamiyan. Most higher education institutions were still functioning in 1996, albeit in severely damaged physical facilities, with next to no textbooks, libraries or laboratories, and hampered by underqualified staff. The Taliban exclude women from universities in areas under their control.

Adult Literacy

Functional literacy courses which had existed since the 1950s were considerably developed during the 1970s, along with appropriate teaching and reading materials for new literate. The politicized promotion of adult literacy by the PDPA after 1978, however, was greatly resented. In the 1990s, aid providers enthusiastically sponsor adult courses, but it is difficult for new literate to maintain their acquired skills because insufficient attention is given to producing suitable reading materials.

Current Activities

Teacher training, textbook development, supplementary readings, curricula, school supplies and construction are all emphasized by agencies assisting Afghanistan's education sector. In many instances, literacy and numeracy are combined with, health, dental care, demining, agriculture and other skills training. Goals emphasize literacy for productivity so as to build human capacities, but, as in the past, social needs are secondary. According to the 1995 work plan prepared by twenty-six Afghan and international NGOs and three UN agencies, their programs serve 20 provinces. Again, provinces such as Ghor, Bamiyan, Nimroz and Badakhshan continue to be neglected.

Despite these efforts, education receives only about 10 percent of the funding provided for other sectors. Schools are still without buildings in many areas and sustainability is questionable because of insufficient coordination, underutilized trained teachers, inattention to quality improvement, inadequate teaching materials, monitoring, and evaluation.

Not enough attention has been made to devise special education courses to reach young, one-time mujahideen who opted to go to war instead of completing their education. These restive individuals are unable to submit to constructive discipline such as school attendance, yet they have no technical competence to enable them to contribute productively to the society. Existing programs, therefore, fall far short in human resource capacity building which is arguably the most crucial need facing Afghanistan today.

In areas administered by the Taliban, emphasis is placed on maximizing religious subjects, schools for girls are closed and female teachers are forbidden to teach. Many NGOs, on instruction from their donors, have suspended assistance in those areas where female education is curtailed. Others seek alternative options such as home schools, but the education system as a whole is beset with grave limitations on key issues such as equitable access and quality instruction. Several future generations will be severely handicapped as a result.

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