KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan backed the country's education minister Saturday in his appeal to leaders of Kandahar province for their help in reopening schools shut down for security reasons.
Ambassador Ron Hoffmann accompanied Education Minister Farooq Wavdak to an assembly in Kandahar of representatives from the 17 districts of the southeastern Afghan province. Some 300 leaders and elders gathered in the basement of the governor's residence to debate the state of education in the war-torn country.
A number of local leaders agreed that education was essential to help overcome the misery of war, with one religious leader declaring he was ashamed at the state of education in his country.
"No one takes care of education here, not the Afghans or the (international) coalition," the Muslim leader said, adding that indifference towards education was behind much of his country's misfortune and the difficulties faced by its population.
In a short speech greeted by warm applause, Hoffmann assured the Afghans that Canada would provide them with the tools necessary to help send their children to school.
He said the terrorist methods used by the insurgency either prevented many schools from opening or forced them to close, but noted that some classes have resumed thanks to leadership shown by local authorities.
"It was important for me to be here," Hoffmann said as he was ferried to the airport for a quick return flight to Kabul, the Afghan capital, only hours after arriving in Kandahar city.
He said the participation of representatives from across the province was an encouraging sign because it proved they believe in the value of education and in the future of their country.
Wavdak noted during a news conference after the assembly that out of 651 schools in the country closed for security reasons, 598 were in Kandahar province, a region that receives the bulk of Canada's aid.
Still, over the past few months, some 200 schools have been able to reopen, 120 of them in the war-ravaged province.
"We're determined to reopen all the schools but to achieve this we need the support of local leaders, religious leaders, elders, government organizations and non-government organizations," Wavdak said.
The assembly proved valuable by exposing cracks in the education system, he added, and promised to boost the co-ordination and participation of local authorities in improving it.
He also thanked Canada for being a major partner in matters relating to education.
Hoffmann noted that there had been concrete and significant progress despite the remaining challenges.
"Together, we're advancing considerably," he said, adding that he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai only two days before to discuss the country's school system.
Canada has a plan to help build, expand or repair 50 schools by 2011, to train 3,000 teachers and teach 20,000 Afghans how to read and write.
American troop reinforcements expected this spring will help secure both the country and its schools, but the education minister said the participation of local officials was also necessary to make the efforts viable.
He said the government was also committed to building protective walls around schools so girls can attend in a climate of security.
Forty-six per cent of school-age Afghans don't have access to education, a number that accounts for some 5.3 million children, Wavdak said.
Some 11 million Afghans are considered illiterate, more than a third of the estimated population, he added.