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GARDEZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan's worsening security has forced about 1,000 schools to close this year, more than double last year's total, adding to problems that children face in getting an education, officials said.
Education officials fear next year could be even worse if Taliban insurgents seize more territory.
"Our students are the first victims of the war," said Mujib Mehrdad, education ministry spokesman.
"If the Taliban continue to gain strength, gains we have made could easily disappear," he said, adding that 24 of the 34 provinces had been forced to shut some schools due to insecurity.
Afghanistan's education system has made significant gains since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Before then, girls were excluded from formal education altogether and fewer than 1 million boys went to school.
Aid donors have poured about $1 billion into schools, helping to provide 8.4 million children with access to education, according to UNICEF.
But despite progress, poor security has added to problems facing an education system that is vital to the economic future of a country dependent on foreign aid.
About 3.5 million children are out of school, 75 percent of them girls, due not only to violence but also a lack of female teachers, early marriage and social restrictions in the conservative society.
"Our families decided not to let our daughters to study after sixth grade because they had to go to school far from their homes," said Sakhi Jaan, a resident of Chamkanai district in the eastern province of Paktia.
"There's not always someone at home to drive them and in the Pashtun community, as girls get older people don't like them going to school," he said, referring to Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group.
The Taliban, who banned girls from school during their 1996-2001 rule, now say they do not oppose girls' education. Their leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has issued statements saying fighters have orders not to damage schools. [nL8N19O064]
However, government officials say the militants are shutting schools in areas they control.
The education ministry has stopped sending salaries to teachers in some Taliban-controlled areas because of concern the funds would fall into wrong hands, Mehrdad said.
"Girls are not allowed to attend school especially after fifth and sixth grades," said Loqman Hakim Hakimi, head of the education department in Paktia, where some 20 girls' schools have been forced to close this year, referring to areas where the Taliban operate.
Just 5 percent of the province's 50,000 school-aged girls make it to sixth grade.
Karima, who like many Afghans goes by one name, secretly attended sixth grade in Paktia's capital, Gardez, but her family forced her to stop.
"When my brothers learned about it, they burned my books," she said. "Now me and my two sisters are at home, not allowed to go to school."
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Randy Fabi in Kabul; Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Robert Birsel