A newly published report on education in Afghanistan concludes nearly 44 percent of all children in the country are not going to schools, pushing the rate up for the first time since 2002.
The report blames the ongoing conflict and worsening security situation, combined with "deeply engrained" poverty and discrimination against girls, for the 3.7 million children aged between 7 and 17 years old who are out of school.
Afghan Education Minister Mirwais Balkhi discussed at a seminar in Kabul Sunday the findings of the report jointly conducted by UNICEF, USAID and Samuel Hall, an independent think tank.
He noted that girls account for 60 percent of the out-of-school population.
"The bitter reality we are facing at is that nearly 44 percent of Afghan children of school age are deprived of school education and 2.7 million of the 3.7 million children are girls."
The report found that up to 85 percent of girls are not going to schools in the worst-affected provinces, including Kandahar, Helmand, Wardak, Paktika, Zabul and Uruzgan.
It also noted child marriage and the displacement of the Afghan population due to conflict significantly affect a child's chances of going to school.
The shortage of female teachers, poor school facilities and insecurity affecting the delivery of education in conflict affected areas are also factors driving children, particularly girls, away from the classroom.
"Business as usual is not an option for Afghanistan if we are to fulfill the right to education for every child. When children are not in school, they are at an increased danger of abuse, exploitation and recruitment," said Adele Khodr, UNICEF Afghanistan Representative.
The Afghan education sector has made significant gains with international help since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power 17 years ago. The enrollment of Afghan girls in schools has also improved significantly.
But an intensified and expanded Taliban-led insurgency over the past few years has forced the closure of schools in many provinces and discouraged parents from sending their children, particularly girls, to schools due to security concerns.
Afghan security forces and insurgents have both been blamed for using schools as bases during fighting.
Insurgents last month forced Afghan authorities in two districts of Kunduz to shut down 23 schools in a bid to secure the release of a key Taliban leader. In other Afghan provinces there have been repeated reports of militants setting schools ablaze.
Sunday's report, however, acknowledged low school dropout rates in Afghanistan, saying the challenge is to get children to start school in the first place.
Nearly 85 percent of boys and girls who start primary school go on to complete the last grade while 94 percent of boys, and 90 percent of girls who start lower secondary school also complete the grades, according to the study.