Afghan elections throw schools to the firing line

Monitoring Desk

KABUL: Schools across the conflict-plagued Afghanistan are fearing deadly attacks from the insurgents, as the country braces for landmark presidential polls slated for September this year.

Engaged in fragile peace talks with the US, the Taliban had already issued stern threats against the use of schools and other public places for the election process.

In a statement issued on the social media, the Taliban warned educational staffers, teachers, lecturers and school principals in cities and rural areas of the country to halt the use of their schools as polling stations and to prevent teachers and students from participating as election workers.

Against their wishes, the residents of southeastern Logar province had to close multiple schools last week to demonstrate their opposition to the use of the academic institutes for security or electoral purposes.

When the schools in the Mohammad Agha district — hometown of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — were shut down by the locals, at least 12,000 boys and girls were deprived of their right to education.

As a signatory of the Safe Schools Declaration, Afghanistan is bound to implement the guidelines for protecting schools and universities from military use during armed conflict.

But, schools across the insurgency-hit country have been on the front line of the conflict for decades. In various provinces, the students have to attend classes in bombed-out buildings and walls littered with bullet holes.

This also significantly affected the education of girls, who are less likely to attend schools where there are no walls, or in the presence of armed men.

Local civil society and the international community have long been asserting that the first step to ensure the neutrality of schools in Afghanistan is to implement the guidelines of the Safe Schools Declaration and remove armed actors from schools and universities across Afghanistan.

Anthony Neal, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Anadolu Agency elections in Afghanistan are a contentious issue between different fighting forces and the use of schools as election facilities brings with it similar risks like the ones when the schools are used by armed forces.

“Therefore, we believe that alternatives to schools should be found for the elections in order to reduce the risk of attacks on schools during the election period,” he said.

Over 190 attacks on schools

Much of these concerns stem from the deadly assaults on schools in the past. According to official statistics, out of the 192 attacks on schools that took place last year — 92 of them were related to elections.

Similar increase in attacks on schools were witnessed in 2014 during the last presidential elections and the 2018 parliamentary elections.

A report by the UN in Afghanistan documented 435 civilian casualties (56 deaths and 379 injured) as a result of violence, including attacks on schools used as polling stations.

The report expressed concerns over the numerous attacks by anti-government elements, mainly Taliban, directed at civilian objects and populated civilian areas during the elections.

NusratRahimi, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, told Anadolu Agency that the security forces in collaboration with intelligence forces are “seriously determined to ensure safety of schools”.

“Our aim is to reclaim all areas that still remain under the Taliban control. We recently took back control of two districts in Ghazni province from the Taliban, and that is what we would replicate all over the country for peaceful execution of the polls,” Rahimi said.

Abdul WakilKaliwal, head of the Directorate of Education, told Anadolu Agency, the schools in Mohammad Agha district of Logar province were reopened following consultations with local elders.

However, situation remains quite grim across the country. As per official statistics, some 430 schools across the country remain closed mainly due to security concerns.

“Despite the support of the Ministry of Education, so far there has been limited interest from both the rest of the government and many international donors — many of whom have also endorsed the Oslo Safe School Declaration — to find alternatives [for polling stations]”, Neal said.

The critical presidential polls are set to take place on Sept. 28.

Courtesy: (AA)