ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Nearly half of Afghanistan's children don't go to class, most of them in the Taliban-rife south. That's according to the country's education minister. Hundreds of schools have closed in Kandahar and neighboring provinces because of militant attacks and threats. Those most affected are Afghan girls. But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Kandahar, many of these girls refuse to give up their schooling, no matter the cost.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Golalai is 14. Her father, a dual Afghan-German citizen, is a chemistry professor who returned here to his native Kandahar to teach.

Ms. GOLALAI ACHAKZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But his daughter doesn't attend school. Golalai says that she hasn't for nearly 18 months, that her father wont' let her go. Darweza Achakzai looks sadly at the shy teenager he adopted here. He fiddles with his worry beads as he explains in German to a visitor that he has no choice but to keep her home.

Professor DARWEZA ACHAKZAI (Professor of Chemistry): (Through translator) People assume I'm rich because of the fact I moved here from Germany. So she's a target for kidnappers. They'll cut off one of her hands and send it to me and tell me to pay a ransom if I want her back.

NELSON: Such fears are not unfounded. The professor's late wife, Sitara, who served on Kandahar's provincial council, was gunned down earlier this month in front of their home. Achakzai says the only hope for his daughter's education is for them to leave Afghanistan, which he plans to do next month. But most families here don't have that option, lacking the financial means or Western passports.

Education officials say more often than not, girls here in Kandahar and the surrounding provinces simply stay home, especially after attacks like those last November, when men on motorcycles sprayed or poured acid on 11 female students and four teachers as they headed to school here.

The most badly injured was Shamsia Hosseini. The burn marks are still visible on the ninth grader's face. She needs surgery her family can't afford. Still, unlike most others who were attacked that day, Shamsia has returned to Mirwais School.

Ms. SHAMSIA HOSSEINI: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She describes what happened to her in a rapid monotone. She says she refuses to dwell on the attack, but she's clearly still traumatized. Shamsia goes to the front of the cavernous classroom and reads a Dari passage from a well-worn textbook. But she quickly falls apart. I can't do this, she mutters, and returns to her seat.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

NELSON: The young students at her school are more enthusiastic. In a UNICEF tent, eight-year-old Shazia points to Koranic verses on the chalkboard and reads them aloud for her classmates to repeat, as a jet flies overhead. Their teacher is Sadigha Rezaie. She puts on a brave face for the children. But inside, she, like most teachers, is frightened.

Ms. SADIGHA REZAIE (Teacher): (Through translator) It's very unsafe in the city. Every time you walk to school, you're looking behind your back to see if a motorcycle is following you. And it's even scarier because we're with these little girls.

NELSON: Still, Rezaie and others believe staying at home is not the answer. Instead, a growing number of female students are choosing something that addresses their desire for education, and their need for safety - literacy courses, taught clandestinely inside people's homes.

Ms. MARZIA SADAT (Teacher): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SADAT: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Like this elementary Dari language class 17-year-old Marzia Sadat teaches in the walled courtyard of her parents' house in Kandahar. Her students, who range in age from 14 to 40, all wear their opaque burkas in class on this day, guarding their anonymity against Western visitors. The youngest is Amina.

AMINA (Student): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She says her parents have always refused to let her go to school because of the insecurity. But they agreed to let her come here because the class is inside a neighbor's home. The 10-month course is similar to the secret classes Afghan girls attended during the Taliban days, when female education was banned. Except now, the effort is sanctioned by the Afghan government and funded by international groups like the World Food Program and Canadian International Development Agency.

Afghan supervisors of the courses, who asked they not be taped or named for fear of reprisals, say they started about 200 of these in-home courses a couple of years ago. Today, there are more than twice as many, each with about 30 students. To help coax families into sending their girls, students are given wheat, cooking oil and salt. So are the teachers, like Marzia, who receive no salary. She says she doesn't mind, because her aim is to make sure her country doesn't fall to militants.

Ms. SADAT: (Through translator) I want to serve my nation and my country. If the militants kill me, so be it. I pray to God, as do my mother and father, and that gives me the strength not to be afraid.

NELSON: Marzia says her efforts are paying off. Her youngest student, Amina, says she is determined to stay in school so she can become a nurse or doctor someday. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kandahar.

SIEGEL: And you can see photos of Afghan girls' schools in Kandahar at npr.org.

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