Avoid using schools in elections, say agencies

KABUL, 17 June 2010 (IRIN) - Putting a polling station in a school would be run-of-the-mill in most countries, but in Afghanistan it can be an invitation to an attack by Taliban insurgents, opposed to the government and western-style democracy.

Taliban rocket, grenade, gun and arson attacks on schools averaged about 50 a month last year. During the August 2009 elections, which the Taliban vowed to disrupt, the number hit 250 in that month alone, according to data compiled by aid agencies.

In elections scheduled for 18 September to the lower house of the national assembly, the Wolesi Jirga, the government and the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) appear ready to again ignore the warnings and use schools and health posts as voting centres.

Impending threat?

“We have no good reason not to use schools in the upcoming parliamentary elections,” said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the IEC, adding that aid agencies had not shared data on school incidents in August 2009 with the IEC.

“Schools are attacked regardless of their use in the elections,” he said.

However, Jennifer Rowell, an advocacy expert with Care International in Kabul, said: “Here it does not make sense to use schools as polling centres as it jeopardizes the right to education,” adding that there was a strong correlation between the hike in attacks on schools and presidential elections in 2009. Afghanistan has a limited stock of public buildings in rural areas. Aid workers accept that, but say polling stations should only be established at schools in relatively peaceful parts of the country. In southern Helmand Province, widely seen as the hotbed of insurgency, education officials fear they will be a magnet for attacks in the forthcoming parliamentary election.

“It would be good if places other than schools will be used as voting centres particularly in insecure districts,” Shir Aqa Sapai, director of the education department in Helmand Province, told IRIN.


Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, student numbers have surged from less than one million in 2001 to about seven million in 2010. More than 30 percent of the students are female, according to the Ministry of Education (MoE).

The progress has been cited, both by the government and its foreign backers, as a major achievement of President Hamid Karzai’s government.

Aid agencies have warned that “politicization” of schools and the involvement of NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in education would have unwelcome security implications. PRTs build and repair schools and distribute stationery to students throughout the country.

According to research by Care International, in 2006-2008 about 1,153 attacks on educational facilities were reported. Some 230 people were killed in armed attacks on schools in 2006-2007, according to the MoE. Schools are an easy target for the Taliban, looking to demonstrate the government's impotence.

“Girls’ education is clearly targeted more than boys,” stated Care’s report of September 2009, which blamed the insurgents and other community members for the attacks. “The government of Afghanistan should under all circumstances avoid the use of education and health facilities in the upcoming elections and for other political purposes,” said a joint report of several NGOs released by the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict on 14 June.

Seeking alternatives

Donors have sponsored Afghanistan’s post-Taliban democratic exercises and the IEC said it needs more than US$140 million for the parliamentary election.

Instead of pleading with an adamant IEC and government not to use schools as voting stations, some aid agencies have approached donors to seek their support.

“Care has spoken to key donors to the election process to see whether they could either influence different decisions or shift some of their funding into genuine options for finding different forms of polling stations,” said Care’s Rowel.

Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Kabul, said decisions about polling centres should be made by Afghan electoral bodies and the US would consider requests from the IEC.

“Our contribution will be significant, but the exact number will depend on the needs identified as we move towards the elections and the contributions of other donors,” she told IRIN, adding that no request for tents had been made by the IEC.

Traditionally, tents have been used in Afghanistan for meetings, such as the 1-3 June Peace Consultative Jirga (assembly) in a German-donated tent in Kabul.