Kabul, Afghanistan - "See, this is our school. You can see where the girls are."
Sixteen-year-old Mahnoz Aliyar is one of the 14,000 students of Kabul's Sayedul Shohada school. The road leading up to the school gate is not paved and potholes full of muddy water make it difficult to navigate. Conditions are little better inside the gates.
Mahnoz points to a big open field.
"You see? We don't have any classrooms, we don't have any buildings, and we don't have enough facilities for the girls."
Some classes are held under makeshift tents; others are held out in the open, with nothing to buffer the girls from the elements of Afghanistan's punishing summers and bitter winters.
While the girls persevere through rain, hail or shine, boys attend classes inside several buildings on the school grounds.
Thanks largely to the efforts of international donors who have spent billions of dollars rebuilding the Afghan education system, millions of girls have returned to school since the Taliban fell in 2001.
However, their exact numbers are unknown.
|Girls at Kabul's Sayedul Shahada school study outdoors because the buildings are reserved for boys [Max Walker/Al Jazeera]|
'He was saying that school is not good for girls'
A 2017 World Bank report suggests that as many as 66 percent of Afghanistan's girls are not in school. And those who are enrolled still struggle to get an education. They have to fight against a society that has long discouraged them, a corrupt system and a lack of proper facilities that disadvantages them.
Mahnoz has been a student at Sayedul Shohada since the first grade. She's now in grade 11 and hopes to attend the American University in Kabul after she graduates next year.
"I want to learn there. After that, I want to get a job. After that, I plan to go into politics. I want to go into politics and I want to supply everything for the girls. That's my wish."
But it will take more than her own fierce determination if Mahnoz is to achieve her goals.
First, she needs her country to be stable. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, instability is one of the main reasons why so many girls are out of school. Families are less likely to send girls to school in insecure conditions than boys.
Even in the relative security of their neighbourhood, the Dascht-e-Barchi district of west Kabul, Mahnoz's father, Allahdad, says he worries about Mahnoz and her younger sister every day when they make the half-hour walk to school. He has reason to be worried - a recent bomb blast just two kilometres from their school killed 60 people.
I want to learn there. After that, I want to get a job. After that, I plan to go into politics. I want to go into politics and I want to supply everything for the girls.
Mahnoz Aliyar, student
In addition to safety concerns, cultural norms still dictate many girls' lives.
Allahdad was at first reluctant to allow Mahnoz to go to school. But she's managed to convince him otherwise.
"Before he was saying ... that school is not good for girls," she recalls. "And the girls should work in the home, cleaning, washing, these things. But right now, he is OK. I am always saying to him the world has changed. And we should learn knowledge, we should go to school."
|Mahnoz's father, Allahdad, at his shop in West Kabul. First reluctant, he now wants Mahnoz to study medicine at university, but she is more interested in politics [Max Walker/Al Jazeera]|
Bribing their way into teaching jobs
If the struggle to get to school is one hurdle, girls face even more obstacles once they are enrolled.
An independent review of corruption in the education system revealed that the poor quality of education leads many parents to pull their daughters out of school.
Muzaffar Shah, the former director of Afghanistan's anti-corruption agency, says that's because teaching jobs often go to those who can afford to bribe their way into jobs rather than those who are most qualified.
"Our findings show that there was more discrimination against women," he says. "Whereas males had more access to get those jobs - either through recommendations, through knowing people, through knowing influential people. And this was not the case for females."
An estimated 75 percent of teaching graduates are unemployed, with most of them being women who do not have those connections or cannot afford to pay a bribe.
Getting more female teachers into classrooms could mean more families would be willing to send their daughters to school - many families will not accept men teaching their girls.
There was more discrimination against women. Males had more access to get those [teaching] jobs - either through recommendations, through knowing people, through knowing influential people. And this was not the case for females.
Muzaffar Shah, the former director of Afghanistan's anti-corruption agency
'If there are ghost schools, who gets the money?'
The anti-corruption report also found that most schools still lack basic infrastructure, despite the billions of dollars international donors have invested in construction and rehabilitation of school buildings. Most, according to the report, are still incomplete.
"Our findings show that literally money was taken in cash to remote parts of Afghanistan by the trustees, and we had information that the money did not make it to the right people," Shah explains.
Money was taken in cash to remote parts of Afghanistan by the trustees, and we had information that the money did not make it to the right people.
Muzaffar Shah, the former director of Afghanistan\'s anti-corruption agency
Back at Sayedul Shohada, Aqeela Tavakoli, the principal of the girls' school, explains that Japanese donors built two new buildings for the girls five years ago. But the school shura, or local council, decided to give those buildings to the boys.
Aqeela points to a large patch of ground near one of the new buildings and says: "That is for the girls, but no one has come to build a school."
Because of the deteriorating security climate in Afghanistan, most donors can't get out of their embassy compounds to monitor the projects they support. That lack of oversight, Muzaffar Shah says, can often drive corruption.
"The schools are located in areas which are insecure. It's hard to know if those schools are there or not - if there are ghost teachers, if there are ghost schools, if there are ghost principals, who gets the money?"
|Girls at Sayedul Shahada school carry their makeshift blackboard to a tent. With most buildings given to the boys, the girls' classes are often interrupted by rain [Max Walker/Al Jazeera]|
'We've learned hard lessons'
Jeff Cohen, the deputy mission director for the largest donor, USAID, acknowledges that his government could have done better.
"Just because as a donor, you want to build a school in this place, doesn't mean it's the right school to build," he says. "I think we've learned lessons - hard lessons. We've tried to do a lot very quickly. It's still a process. Self-reliance is a long-term goal," says Cohen.
Self-reliance is something Mahnoz has learned in her 16 years. Asked whether sometimes it all just seems too hard, a fiery determination flashes in her big brown eyes.
"If I face a problem ... I am saying to myself, that 'Mahnoz, this situation is not good. You have to change this situation.' And just by starting you can change first your family, then your neighbourhood, and after that ... you can serve your people."