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For girls in Kabul, school is no more

On a nondescript street in southern Kabul stands a nondescript villa with a small courtyard.

But the Aschiana Center is special because, six months after the Taleban militia captured the Afghan capital, it is the only institution in town that continues to educate girls.

Female education, employment and free mobility have been largely extinguished by a movement that espouses a rigorous version of sharia law. The Aschiana Center survives only because it bills itself primarily as a refuge for street children. So the mullahs, who recognize this role in a city that has been a war zone for nearly five years, turn a blind eye to its secondary function as a school.

Many coeducational schools were forced to close when the Taleban seized power last September and ordered out female teachers. Then winter came and, in accordance with tradition, the remaining schools closed until the spring.

Next month boys will start back to school, but their sisters will stay home unless parents dare to send them to one of the clandestine schools that have been set up in private homes _ particularly by the Hazara minority, who regard educated women as more eligible for marriage.

The Aschiana Center has space for just 250 children (boys and girls are segregated for lessons), and these are just a handful of the 28,000 youngsters who were estimated by the Swiss non-governmental organization Terre des Hommes (TDH) and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees to be working on Kabul's streets last year.

The Taleban restriction on women _ they are allowed to work only in the health sector or as beggars _ means that more and more families are dependent upon children as the main bread-winners.

The pupils at Aschiana are no exception. They continue to support their families by washing cars, polishing shoes, selling food or collecting firewood and scrap. But between chores they come to the center to get breakfast, a wash and lessons in health education, math and Dari, the main language of Kabul.

Before the Taleban marched into town, the center accepted girls up to the age of 18, the age of majority for both sexes under Afghan statute. Sharia law decrees a girl's childhood to be over at 14 (16 for boys), while the Taleban says she is a woman at seven and should not mix with boys _ for whom manhood is not defined _ after that age.

"It took about two months to get permission from the Taleban authorities to let even the small girls back to the center," said TDH delegate Nick Hughes. "However, many of the girls are so undernourished that a 10-year-old can pass for seven and still be allowed in."

The Taleban's distinction between the genders, along with the otherwise blanket ban on female education, has divided the international donor community. UNICEF suspended all assistance to education in Taleban-controlled areas in November 1995 on the grounds that the policy contravened the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

But the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan has argued, with support of many Afghan NGOs, that boys should not be penalized because of the Taleban's views.

The Taleban has said that it will review its position on education for girls once its military goals have been achieved. But the re-opening of girls' schools will not be enough to silence the international outcry if the curriculum is patterned on the religious schools that spawned the Taleban movement.

"Donors won't have any objection of classes about religion so long as there is some practical education," said Paul Barker, of the charity Care, which supports 38 "home schools" in Taleban-controlled provinces south of Kabul. "I think the Taleban will come to realize that there are some valuable skills which come out of a secular or broader based education."

Even before the Taleban held sway over education, enrollment of girls was a mere 3.6 percent of the school-age female population.