KABUL Every day, as they walked to school, Maryam Mansoor and her sister ran a gauntlet of intimidation and harassment by youths armed with knives.
"A lot of my classmates and other female students don't come to school anymore because they fear the boys' harassment and kidnappings," said Maryam, 18, who finally quit school at her worried father's behest.
From acid attacks, murder, torching of schools and sexual assault, violence against female students is dashing the dreams of thousands of Afghan girls and women who are thirsty for an education that may help rejuvenate the fractured economy and society of their war-torn country.
"I like to go to school and later I want to go to university to be a doctor or someone important in the future, but I don't want to make my family upset because of my education. Whatever my father has decided is right," Maryam sighed despairingly.
In villages, and particularly in the deeply conservative south, the Taliban have burned down schools, killed female students and teachers and attacked schoolgirls by throwing acid in their faces.
In relatively safer and less conservative Kabul, girls are facing abuse, sexual harassment and kidnappings.
"The security situation is worsening everyday. In spite of all the problems, I continued to let them go to school but now I feel like things are getting worse," said Maryam's father Mohammad, who owns a fruit shop in Kabul.
"I am not against my girls completing their education, but their safety is more important ... I don't want them to study outside any more," said Mohammad, who brought his family back to Afghanistan from Iran about two years ago.
Under the Taliban, ousted from Kabul by U.S. and Afghan forces in 2001, women were barred from study and work and were largely unable to leave their homes without a male relative.
The Afghan government has sought to improve access to education for both boys and girls. Some 6.2 million young Afghans, including two million girls now attend school, compared with less than one million, only male students, under the Taliban.
Afghanistan is still a deeply traditional and conservative society. Even without the Taliban, some in Kabul oppose young women attending school.
Many feel that once girls reach puberty, leaving the home, even for school, might cast doubt on their honor. Many of the jeering young men hanging around outside schools and following the girls home clearly believe that too.
"In spite of the police presence near every school, the boys manage to tease girls and even kidnap them and sexually abuse them," said a school teacher, who asked not to be named.
"Dozens of schoolgirls don't come to school anymore due to insecurity and intimidation from street boys," she added.
The government says increased harassment and the threat of kidnapping could leave a generation of young Afghans deprived of an education as they retreat to the safety of the home.
That is on top of the already huge security problems facing education in Afghanistan.
"In the past eight months, around 138 students and teachers have lost their lives and another 172 have been wounded in criminal and terror attacks," said Asif Nang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education.
"About 651 schools have become inactive mostly due to insecurity and another 122 school buildings have been blown up or burned down across the country," said Nang, adding the Ministry of Education was working to improve protection and security for teachers and students across the country.
Some 173,443 students, both men and women, are also unable to go to school or gain an education because security concerns are preventing new schools from being built in the first place, according to Nang.
In November, 15 female students and teachers had acid thrown in their faces by men in the southern province of Kandahar.
While Taliban militants, fighting to overthrow the Western-backed government and expel foreign troops, are behind the attacks in the provinces and the south, those harassing girls in Kabul are usually unemployed young men, Nang said.
The police have at times rounded up the groups of youths, but Nang said many of them "have good connections with some police officials - the boys are released back after detention because they are well connected."
"We request Afghan and foreign forces including elders to get involved and to take extra measures in providing security for all students and teachers," Nang added.
(Editing by Megan Goldin)