KABUL: Low salaries are forcing many of Afghanistan’s teachers to take on second jobs so they can feed their families. Despite promises that their wages would be increased, schoolteachers in Kabul said there have been few improvements since the US-led invasion in 2001. “When the Taliban regime was destroyed, we were optimistic that the new government would help us, but they have done nothing,” said Aziza Khalil, a chemistry teacher. Against the backdrop of growing insecurity, education is commonly regarded as being one of Afghanistan’s most tangible success stories.
Girls were barred from going to school under the Taliban, a fact often used as a marker for progress the country has since made. During a visit to Afghanistan this month, Laura Bush, the wife of the US president, was quick to highlight the issue. “There’s a huge increase in the number of kids in school,” she told reporters. “There are almost six million kids in school now compared to 2001 when there were maybe a million, but no girls.”
However, the reality is that progress has been slower than many expected and some Afghans fear the education system is in danger of regressing. Ms Khalil started teaching during the communist era, a period she remembers as perhaps the best time for her and her colleagues. When the Taliban seized power, she continued to receive her salary for two years, even though she was not allowed to work at Zarghona High School. Although she has been welcomed back, she has had to take on another job, tutoring students after school, to make ends meet.
“We have five people in our family and that’s small for Afghanistan. But on the salary I get I cannot even afford to buy them tea and bread,” Ms Khalil said. Most teachers at state schools earn between US$50 to $100 (Dh183 to Dh367) a month. Those interviewed said their income had barely changed since the Taliban regime was overthrown and, with basic living expenses increasing, they were struggling to survive. “The problem is with the people in high positions. They steal the money given to the ministry of education and build themselves a house, a beautiful castle,” Ms Khalil said.
Last month, teachers around the country went on strike to demand a pay rise. The protest lasted just two days at Zarghona, but elsewhere the demonstrations were longer and the police responded by arresting some school principals. Nazifa Ghiasi, a colleague of Ms Khalil’s, also has a second job, earning more as a tailor than she does from helping girls learn Pashto. In total, she works an average of 14 to 15 hours a day. “I have five children and the money from teaching is not enough for me,” she said.
The government has pledged to increase salaries as part of an overall scheme to raise wages in the public sector, but the plan is not due to be implemented for at least another three years. Mohammed Suleman Kakar, a senior adviser at the ministry of education, acknowledged Afghanistan’s schools were in a “crisis situation”, but warned it could take another five years to move beyond that. “When you have such a large number of students enrolled in schools, you have to provide the supplies, including qualified teachers, textbooks, buildings, good administration and management,” he said. “Resources have always been limited and strategic planning for the organisation of all this was lacking.”
Mr Kakar said the ministry of education receives just 30 per cent of the money it needs annually. Teachers across the city said classroom supplies rely on donations from wealthy parents, and that in one school regular electricity was only possible because a former pupil is the nephew of an influential warlord. Zarghona also has to share its facilities with another school, a situation found throughout Kabul.
At Rukhshana High School, some lessons are held in the corridors as all the classrooms are full. “This is all because of [Hamid] Karzai,” one female teacher at the school said, blaming the Afghan president. Her colleague, however, disagreed. “This is all because of the Americans. They do not want to improve education in Afghanistan.”
Mr Kakar said poor governance following the US-led invasion caused many of the problems that exist today. He said only 35 per cent of schools have buildings and 80 per cent of teachers have not completed high school education. Security is also a big problem in seven provinces, including Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Badghis. “Schools are attacked, schools are blown up, schools are burnt, teachers are killed, students are killed, students and teachers are threatened,” he said.
He said in the short-term, teachers who register with the government, pass a competency test and open a bank account will receive relatively substantial pay rises. But the ministry hopes that a scheme due to be implemented in stages over the next three to four years will eventually leave all of its teachers with a minimum wage of about $120 a month. The maximum will be about $500 or $600.-SANA