Canada helps rebuild Afghan schools amid threats from militants

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Hunched over aging desks with pens clasped in their hands, they hardly look like revolutionaries.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Hunched over aging desks with pens clasped in their hands, they hardly look like revolutionaries.

But in Kandahar, the city they call home, they are considered dangerous enough that they've been the targets of a brutal campaign of annihilation by the Taliban.

They are teachers, and for many in this war-torn land, they are at the forefront of the war on terror and the future of their country.

"In the West, people want to be doctors," says Shogota, 19. "Here, we need teachers, education."

Shogota is one of 184 students at the Teacher Training College in Kandahar city, and one of 57 women. She's been teaching English for a year and she's well aware of how dangerous her chosen profession can be.

She is the only woman at the college this day who will allow her photo to be taken, yet she pulls the all-encompassing burka over her head to come to the college and before she steps outside the guarded gate.

Attacks on teachers and schools have been commonplace in Afghanistan, where the Taliban banned education for girls in 1996. By the middle of the 1990s, only about 650 schools were functioning in the country - most of them religious madrassas for boys.

In Kandahar province, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, it is estimated only five per cent of women are literate and 22 per cent of men, and there is every indication that the insurgents would like to keep it that way.

Last November, terrorists sprayed acid in the faces of young girls on their way to school in Kandahar city and several of the province's schools have been burned down or otherwise attacked. Many remain closed because of the poor security situation.

It's not just Kandahar. In May, poison gas attacks at three girls schools north of Kabul sickened students.

"If security was better, every girl would like to go from her home and go to school," says Abdul Samad Nazari, director of the college, a ramshackle collection of sparse buildings that is about to get a major makeover, thanks to the Canadian International Development Agency and the Canadian Forces.

A teacher himself for 31 years, Nazari said the security situation is now better in the city than in the rural areas of the province.

"We have a lot of schools in the district that aren't open. They're closed because of the threat from the Taliban," he says through an interpreter.

The mention of the danger elicits a stream of Pashto and nodding heads from a half dozen college staff during a meeting with CIDA officials. The day before the visit, insurgents shot at one of the guards outside the entrance to the school, they said.

But Nazari said he will not be deterred. The 58-year-old lifetime teacher said it's his responsibility.

"Its my country," he says simply. "If we stop, who will teach them? There would be no education."

Half the schools in southern Afghanistan are closed, due mainly due to the security situation, but also because of a lack of proper infrastructure and insufficient teachers.

Yet Afghanistan is in desperate need of a good education system for its long-term stability.

Since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, school enrolment has increased from 700,000 students - all boys - to an estimated six million, 35 per cent of them girls.

But the roster of teachers has not kept pace, and a critical shortage has seen teachers and classrooms working in shifts in order to accommodate hundreds of students each.

Canada has committed $90 million overall for education, including $12 million over three years for one of its "signature" projects: To build or renovate 50 schools in Kandahar province by 2011. With a year and a half to go, five have been opened and another 25 are in the planning or construction stage.

Plans are in the works by CIDA and the Canadian Forces' Specialist Engineering Team to overhaul the college, which will go a long way to meeting the Canadian government's goal of adding 3,000 teachers to the Afghan payroll by 2011. The engineering team, which will oversee the project, is looking for a contractor to carry out the renovations.

"The entire campus needs to be done," says Lt. Gregoire Laforce, second in command of the 13-member engineering team, one of four such teams from One Engineering Unit based in Moncton, N.B., who undertake six-month rotations in Kandahar.

In this war-ravaged country where the pace of change usually involves two steps forward and one step back, at best, the military and civilian contingent from Canada are pleased to see the fruits of some of their years of labour.

With an influx of U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar province where Canadian troops have fought a pitched battle against the Taliban since 2006, the mission is taking on a new direction focused heavily on development and infrastructure building in the city and key villages in the surrounding districts.

Micro-finance projects have seen Kandahar residents make a start on revitalizing their almost non-existent economy, military officials recently unveiled a "model village" project that is refurbishing a rural village with local Afghan labour, and the signature $50-million Dahla Dam project is getting underway.

According to the office of the Representative of Canada in Kandahar, this country has the highest civilian presence in theatre of any nation.

Kara Mitchell, chief development officer for CIDA in Kandahar, says the college project is the centrepiece of the commitment to increase the number of teachers, women in particular.

In addition to security improvement, the renovations will include a dormitory to house 200 female students. Canadian development officials are also looking at different possibilities to give women an extra incentive to attend the college and enter the classroom, such as bursaries or daily allowances.

If the goals are lofty ones, Mitchell is convinced the college will fulfil them.

"The faculty there is very committed to their work they're doing, even though they have modest resources," she says.

 
 
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