KABUL Girls' education in Afghanistan, one of the biggest gains for women since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, is at risk because of insecurity, lack of funds and equipment and poor teacher-training, aid groups said on Thursday.
Women's education was banned under the government of the hardline Islamist group, now leading a growing insurgency, with only an estimated 5,000 girls in school.
There are 2.4 million girls enrolled at school, but around 20 percent do not attend classes regularly. Those who do make it to school face obstacles including open-air classrooms and a journey of up to three hours each way, said the "High Stakes" report.
More than a third of the interviewees said insecurity was a major obstacle to education, with parents keeping their daughters home after a string of attacks on girls' schools.
A shortage of female teachers -- as few as one in every hundred educators in the most conservative or unstable areas -- also limits girls' hopes of getting more than a primary education, all that most of their peers receive.
Access to learning for women has become emblematic of the positive changes Western donors have tried to bring about as they poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan.
But development groups working to improve women's position fear that Western governments' focus is on handing over security responsibilities to Afghan troops by 2014, and starting the withdrawal from a war that voters back home are tiring of.
"It's crucial donor governments sustain their support for development, especially education, even once their troops leave," said Abdul Waheed Hamidy, of Co-ordination for Humanitarian Assistance, an Afghan NGO which contributed to the research.
"Investing in education is vital for the future of Afghanistan. An educated woman is better able to stand up for her interests, raise a healthier family and contribute to the economy."
The report was compiled by 16 Afghan and foreign aid groups, including Oxfam and CARE. Researchers spoke to more than 1,600 girls, parents and teachers across half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
At age 18, just 18 per cent of Afghan girls are still in school compared with 42 per cent of boys.
Poverty, early marriage and poor security were the main reasons girls had to drop out of school, the report said.
(Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Paul Tait)