I was going to continue blogging about school lunch in Canada this week but I saw this disturbing story about extremist attacks on schoolgirls in Afghanistan and wanted to write about how school meal programs are making a difference for girls in that country.
As most people know, during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, girls were banned from attending school. Even today, nine years after the regime’s ousting, only one third of Afghan students are female.
And many of the girls who do go to school risk their lives to attend. Girls have had acid thrown at them, there have been bombings and female teachers and students are regularly threatened.
Yesterday, as the article reports, government officials allege extremists launched the second poison attack on schoolgirls in northeastern Afghanistan in two days, causing dozens to collapse with nausea and headaches while waiting for a Qur’an reading at their school.
Advocates for girls’ education fear that this is the extremists’ newest weapon to scare girls and their families into staying home instead of going to school.
Unfortunately, it’s a very effective weapon. Imagine the impossible choice for parents, knowing on one hand that educating your daughter is the single most effective way to improve her life and life in Afghanistan in general, and on the other that her life might very well be in danger simply walking to school.
The World Food Program and others have been trying to make the decision easier by providing nutritious meals in schools and other take-home food incentives for girls and their families.
In 2009, WFP provided 1.4 million Afghan children with high energy biscuits (see photo) or a hot meal. More than half a million girls were also given vegetable oil to take home. In a country where 39% of kids under 5 years old are underweight (one of the international measures of malnutrition), these food incentives can be very compelling. For many children, it is the most nutritious meal they have all day.
The WFP reports that girls’ enrollment and attendance have increased as a result of the school feeding program, though it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a setback if these kinds of poison gas attacks continue.