Afghan children back in the classroom as violence stalks the school run


Kabul (AFP)

Eight-year-old Dunya Saboori implores her mother to let her put on her blue shalwar kameez uniform. This weekend marks the beginning of the Afghan school year and she wants to be on time.

"It's nearly 7:00 am and we're going to be late," Dunya complains as she sits on a floor cushion in the family's living room in Kabul, scooping up fried eggs with chunks of bread as her mother Maliha prepares backpacks and locates headscarves.

It is a scene played out in millions of homes around the world. But in war-torn Afghanistan the routine of getting children to and from school is fraught with danger.

In a conflict with no frontline, civilians are frequently caught up in the deadly violence.

Suicide attackers tend to strike during rush-hour when streets are choked with pedestrians and traffic -- the same times that parents are often dropping off or picking up their children from school.

After a more than two-months' long holiday, which Dunya spent mostly at home with her younger sisters Sana, five, and Sama, three, studying English and Dari with a tutor, she is excited to see her friends again.

Deteriorating security in the Afghan capital, where Taliban and Islamic State militants have launched multiple deadly attacks in recent months, has further restricted the freedom of many children.

- 'Civilians are in danger' -

As the girls eat their breakfast and sip sweet, black tea with their father Baqi, Maliha is in near constant motion, going from room to room ensuring the family will be ready to leave the house on time.

A few minutes before 7:00 am, Maliha dresses Dunya and Sana in their well-ironed uniforms, covers their dark hair with black scarves, and slides their arms through the straps of their new backpacks.

The sisters are at the top of their respective classes, Maliha says proudly.

Before leaving, Sana runs out of the living room and returns moments later exclaiming: "I saw myself in the mirror!"

In the stairwell, Maliha, who is studying medicine, helps her daughters put on their shoes and then guides them downstairs to their father, who is warming the car and anxious about arriving at his work, the Afghanistan Medical Council, on time.

As the Saboori family drives slowly through the narrow lanes of their middle-class neighbourhood, squeezing past other cars, dozens of children in spotless uniforms walk with their mothers and fathers to school.

Dunya and Sana are among more than eight million children enrolled in schools across Afghanistan this year, education ministry figure show. Around 40 percent are girls.

But 3.5 million other school-age children will miss out due to school closures, grinding conflict and poverty.

Afghanistan's general literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world -- just 36 percent, according to the Afghan National Association for Adult Education.

As many schools resumed classes on Saturday, President Ashraf Ghani said improving the country's education system would be a priority for his government this year.

Among other things, Ghani pledged $200 million for the construction of 6,000 school buildings over the next two years.

But security is a bigger concern for many parents. Baqi and Maliha would like to be able to drop off and pick up their daughters without worrying about bombs going off.

"Civilians are in danger everywhere -- this is a concern for all Afghan families," Baqi says.