Six years on from their initial implementation, questions are being raised about the applicability of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in places of extreme poverty. To celebrate this year's International Day of Education, we're reflecting on progress made towards inclusive and equitable quality education in Afghanistan, and how our projects seek to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. 

Read on to find out about Sustainable Development Goal 4, the education crisis in Afghanistan, and our work bringing inclusive education to remote communities in Afghanistan.

Education, poverty and inequality

Improving access to education is a vital tool for both breaking cycles of poverty and furthering gender equality but the Coronavirus pandemic has deepened persistent disparities in global education development. In 2020, school closures kept around 90 per cent of all students out of education, and access (or lack thereof) to home-learning has laid bare the disproportionate impact global crises can have on disadvantaged, vulnerable children and their families.

All schools and educational institutions were closed in Afghanistan until the end of September 2020 following the outbreak of the pandemic last year, with the second wave of the virus prompting the closure of higher education facilities once more towards the end of the year. 

In Afghanistan:

  • Only 20 per cent of households have access to the internet;
  • Literacy rates for the country's adult population are just 43 per cent;
  • COVID-19 is predicted to push the country's already high poverty rate to 70%.

This means that an overwhelming majority of Afghan students are unable to afford devices for home-learning and are unable to turn to a family member for help. COVID-19 has similarly increased the probability of permanent dropouts: with the secondary effects of the pandemic serving to worsen food and income insecurity, many children may be required to contribute to their household income to help keep their families afloat.

Read about our Coronavirus response

Poverty, inequality and a lack of proper infrastructure and facilities were factors already forcing many children to leave education prematurely, or rendering them unable to go to school whatsoever. The pandemic is serving to underscore and exacerbate these pre-existing challenges which make the attainment of SDG 4 vital, but also extremely difficult.

What is SDG 4?

SDG 4 is comprised of 10 targets dedicated to developing universal and lifelong access to education. The goal stipulates that by 2030, every country should be able to provide free primary and secondary education to all girls and boys and that pre-primary education and care should also be accessible to all. Inclusivity resides at the core of SDG 4 through its emphasis on:

  • Removing gender disparities;
  • Equal access for persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and particularly vulnerable children;
  • Improved access to technical, vocational and tertiary education for all ages with a "substantial number of adults" achieving proficient literacy and numeracy skills by 2030.

The goal also outlines that all learners should actively have been given knowledge and skills needed to further sustainable development, human rights, gender equality, peace and cultural diversity.

Afghanistan's education crisis

Even prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, it was estimated that at least 3.7 million children in Afghanistan were out of school, with Afghanistan's Ministry for Education suggesting the figure could be as high as 5 million. In 2019, UNICEF estimated that only 14 per cent of girls in Afghanistan complete both primary and secondary education. 

Some of the most pervasive issues causing unequal access to education in Afghanistan are:

  • Sociocultural norms discouraging women and girls from entering education or employment;
  • Fragile sociopolitical and humanitarian crises, including ongoing conflict as well as increasingly frequent climate-induced disasters;
  • Lack of facilities - it is estimated that 6,000 schools have no buildings at all and 50 per cent of the country’s 17,000 schools lack adequate facilities;
  • Poverty, which forces many children to work from a young age or means that many families cannot cover the costs of school supplies.

Similarly, there seems to be an emerging issue with quality of education, as heightened enrolment figures do not necessarily translate into higher literacy and numeracy skills - perhaps caused in part due to the fact that less than half of teachers in Afghanistan have the minimum academic qualifications. Our Managing Director, Charles Davy, highlighted this issue when invited to speak on the House of Lords International Defence Committee's Inquiry into Afghanistan: "there has undoubtedly been a large increase in the number of girls enrolled in school, but we are concerned at the disparity between enrolment figures and both the number of girls who complete their schooling and the female literacy rate, which is just 16 per cent"

Afghanaid and SDG 4: improving access for all

Access for women

Improving the access women and girls have to education and vocational training is at the heart of what we do.

In line with SDG 4's directive to develop lifelong learning opportunities for all, we work with women of all ages and abilities to help them grow the knowledge, skills and tools they need to develop a vocation and earn an income. 

We run literacy and numeracy courses for illiterate women, alongside workshops which introduce them to a vocation. We also run workshops for both women and men on women's rights and gender equality, which help to shift attitudes towards women's roles in their communities and encourages women to advocate for themselves.

When women are able to contribute to the household income, it lifts their social status, helping entire communities to see the value of educating a woman. In turn, this ensures that more girls are encouraged to go to school, and other women are encouraged to re-enter education and training.

Take Rokia (pictured) - when she learnt to weave gabions, thick metal structures that help mitigate against floods, her boosted household income not only increased her influence over family decisions, but also meant that they could afford to send more of the children to school.

“I’m breaking the circle of illiteracy. Both my children and grandchildren will receive an education - it's a chance for a better future. I watch them learning and I am so proud of them.”

Read Rokia's Story

Climate-resilient schools

Due to rising global temperatures, communities in Afghanistan have been facing increasingly frequent instances of extreme weather and natural disasters, meaning droughts, floods, and avalanches are threatening the livelihoods of many communities across the country.

Zuhrabi Girl’s School, where 800 students aged 5-18 study, lies on one of the floodplains of the northern river basins in Afghanistan. Every spring, heavy rainfall floods the roads surrounding the school, making it impossible for students to walk to class. 

“Floods come multiple times each year,” said Sohalia (below), the principal, who has directed the school for seven years. “Students often have to miss school for several days because it is too dangerous to take the road.”

Afghanaid works with communities across Afghanistan that are situated along river basins and therefore vulnerable to flooding, helping villages construct bridges, trenches, protection walls and watersheds in order to reduce the risks of floods and other natural disasters. To divert future flood waters, we helped Sohalia’s community to build a 200m protection wall alongside the school as well as a bridge, making it easier for the students to walk to school in the event of a flood. “Next time a flood comes, the children will be able to walk to school easily without stress or worry, which means they can get a proper education", Sohalia said.

Improved facilities

In 2015, we started a 3-year-long programme which delivered clean water, sanitation infrastructure and hygiene education to 66,000 people in villages and schools in Samangan province. The project was instrumental in boosting school attendance, particularly among teenage girls, due to the provision of proper, private toilets facilities.

Coronavirus relief

We're also working to mitigate the rising levels of food insecurity across the country. In partnership with UNOCHA, we're delivering emergency food to 17,400 men, women and children, to get them through the harsh winter months. This will help to keep vulnerable children in school despite the cold conditions and devastating effects of the pandemic.

What are the key challenges Afghanaid must overcome?

Evidently, achieving SDG 4 in Afghanistan by 2030 will be no easy task, but this only emboldens our work here at Afghanaid. Our Project Manager for our largescale Women's Empowerment project outlined some of the key obstacles, aside from ongoing conflict and rigid societal norms, that our team on the ground meet in accessing some of the most vulnerable, hardest-to-reach women in the country:

  • Ensuring that women with disabilities are enrolled in our education courses can be particularly challenging as their potential is often undervalued by their community, and similarly, facilities where we hold our courses in particularly rural areas are not always accessible. We mitigate access problems by, where possible, delivering the courses in their homes.
  • Elderly women are also often undervalued by their peers, but this can be remedied by selecting appropriate vocational courses that account for accessibility factors, such as arthritic joints, decreased eyesight or hearing impairments.
  • We work with some of the most remote communities in Afghanistan, often meaning the resources the women we work with need to make the most of their vocational trainings are not available locally. This means that we must tailor the vocational trainings accordingly.

Thank you for your support

We could not do the work we do without your committed support - thank you.

Want to hear more about education initiatives furthering SDG 4 in Afghanistan? We recently held a live conversation, 'Afghanistan's Next Generation' and discussed how science, cricket, and skateboarding education initiatives in Afghanistan are creating future leaders: