An ongoing survey by Human Rights Watch is attempting to measure the impact of COVID-19 on education, which so far has generated responses from 54 countries. In Afghanistan, for example, respondents described trying to study during a war and a pandemic—highlighting an increase of domestic violence, pressure on girls to marry early instead of studying and more.
Education has long been an issue of concern in Afghanistan. During my professional experience in the country, combined with Creative’s long-term commitment to improving educational systems in Afghanistan, I have seen the challenges and successes. As can be said for nearly every country, no one anticipated a pandemic. Afghanistan is among the countries that could least afford this new threat to education.
It is important to recognize that the country has made tremendous progress in its delivery of education since 2001. Literacy rates have improved, increased numbers of schools have been constructed or rehabilitated and there are nine times more teachers today than there were 18 years ago. According to the Ministry of Education, school enrollment rose from 900,000 in 2001 to 9 million in 2015.
Despite these positive changes, 3.7 million children were out of school – 60 percent of them girls. Now, with the added impact of COVID-19 resulting in school closures at least until September, the whole of Afghanistan’s school-aged population is out of school.
The Ministry of Education quickly began working with the Global Partnership for Education to develop a two-phased plan to address the immediate emergency (phase 1) and school reopening and recovery (phase 2). As a key piece of phase 1, the Ministry of Education’s focus has been to digitize its curriculum and textbooks for access online and to re-invigorate its educational television capacities to air televised lessons. The Ministry’s approach is understandable given the need to do something quickly coupled with world-wide pressures to be innovative and make use of technology. Digitizing textbooks and airing pre-recorded television lessons is expedient.
While this is a herculean endeavor, it will at best reach 50 percent of the population. Media Landscapes estimates that internet penetration is 15.7 percent and television penetration is 40 percent. The majority of those with access live in urban areas. That leaves radio, with coverage of almost 73 percent, as the most trusted medium.
USAID’s Afghan Children Read project is working to reach populations without internet or television access by developing radio lessons based on the Ministry’s reading program for Grades 1, 2, and 3 in both Dari and Pashto, which are the two most popular languages. These lessons are in development with the aim to begin broadcasting them by mid-July.
Within the four provinces (Kabul, Herat Nangarhar and Laghman) covered by Afghan Children Read, only 30 percent of women and 55 percent of men are literate. Prior to the pandemic, the project was working closely with families to build a culture of reading and to emphasize the importance of education, particularly for girls.
Broadcasting lessons through any medium is not enough when families live with the accumulated stresses of poverty, war and now a pandemic. Parents need awareness on the value of their children’s continuing learning at home and guidance on their role in supporting their children.
Afghan Children Read is using radio, mosques and short message service/interactive voice response via cellphones to provide tips to parents on how to help their children learn to read, how to support their children’s social emotional learning and how to actively engage in supporting their own wellbeing with no-cost, simple and effective activities. The aim of these activities is to reduce family stress, reach as many out-of-school children as possible and help Afghan families to weather this pandemic–storm as effectively as possible.
Education is not the singular effort of any government, ministry of education, school or family; it is the responsibility of all. However, often parents are not aware of their critical role in supporting their children’s learning. Afghan Children Read’s efforts to provide parents with tools to encourage their children, both academically and emotionally, is critical during this time of COVID-19, and will, hopefully, have lasting effects once Afghanistan is able to return and adjust to a new normal for education delivery.
Susan Hirsch-Ayari is the Director, Middle East & Asia Portfolio at Creative Associates International. In this role, she directs the Afghan Children Read Project and supports business development and thought leadership related to education in crisis countries, particularly in the broader Middle East and North Africa and Asia regions.