UNICEF has struck a rare agreement with the Taliban in war-ravaged Afghanistan to establish thousands of informal schools in areas controlled by the Islamist insurgent group.
The program will reach up to 140,000 Afghan boys and girls, said Sam Mort, the agency’s chief of communications, advocacy and civic engagement in the South Asian nation, where an estimated 3.7 million children are out of school.
“Through this agreement, UNICEF will support the establishment of 4,000 community-based education classes across Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Faryab,” Mort told VOA, naming the four Afghan provinces where the Taliban controls or influences swaths of territory.
The UNICEF official said that currently there are 680 such informal classes already taking place across these provinces. The agreement will scale those up to 4,000, she added.
Mort said that each class could accommodate up to 35 students, and classes are expected to start in March, when the new school year begins in Afghanistan.
She said the plan aims to ensure that every child, especially girls, in remote areas, can go to school safely and securely.
“Currently, 60% of the children that are out of school are girls and that increases to 80% in some hard-to-reach areas,” Mort said.
She said the program is the result of about two years of conversations with local Taliban leaders and those based in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the insurgent group runs its political office.
Mort said that ongoing U.N.-led polio vaccination drives had prompted the discussions about what other services the Taliban and their community wanted. UNICEF is "excited” to work with the Taliban and all parties to give every child the best start in life, she added.
“The fact that the Taliban asked UNICEF to support them with other services, beyond polio drops, to help their children survive and thrive, is a breakthrough moment,” she said.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the insurgent group’s agreement with UNICEF.
“We believe it is a good step and we will prepare the ground for the establishment of these schools in areas under our control,” Mujahid told VOA.
Mort said UNICEF informed the Afghan Education Ministry that it would be expanding into hard-to-reach areas. She said the recruitment tests for new teachers will be the same as tests used by the ministry and will be carried out by UNICEF’s implementing partners.
Helmand Sangin Workplan
Community-based education, which establishes classes in remote or insecure areas, scattered villages and other underserved areas, is an alternative education approach in Afghanistan and has proved to be successful to reach children not in school, especially girls.
The UNICEF-Taliban agreement, known as the Helmand Sangin Workplan, is valid until the end of December 2021, renewable based on mutual understanding of both parties.
The cost of operating the informal schools is to be shared among several groups, including the Global Partnership for Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others.
The Islamist Taliban is currently in slow-moving peace negotiations with the Afghan government to agree on a power-sharing deal and nationwide cease-fire.
The United States has pushed the rivals to the negotiating table to pave the way for a complete drawdown of American forces from what has become the longest war in U.S. history.
However, domestic and International rights groups remain skeptical about the Taliban’s participation in the future Afghan governance system.
The skepticism stems from the five-year Taliban rule in Afghanistan, starting in 1996, when girls were banned from education and women were barred from outdoor work.
Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser and political commentator, has hailed the UNICEF-Taliban agreement as great news for his country.
“Education is a universal right, and it was clear to the international community that Kabul is unable to deliver services to areas controlled by the Taliban,” Farhadi said.
“All and all, it is much better for our kids to have schools and study than not at all,” he said.