INTERVIEW-Attacks threaten gains to Afghan girls' education-UN

KABUL, May 20 (Reuters) - After several years of progress, girls’ education in Afghanistan has been set back by recent attacks on schools that have frightened parents into keeping their daughters at home, a UN official said on Wednesday.

Daniel Toole, South Asia Director for UNICEF, said families are becoming fearful about educating their daughters as the Taliban insurgency gathers strength, despite an enormous appetite for them to learn.

“What we are starting to see is that families are indeed afraid to send their girls to school,” he told Reuters, little more than a week after two mystery gas attacks at schools just north of Kabul put nearly 150 students in hospital.

“The combination of anti-government elements attacking schools, fear of gas and whatever that is now circulating, certainly means that parents will be more leery about sending their children to school, particularly their girls.”

Girls education was probably worse now than a year ago, he said, reversing a trend of improvements over the last few years.

“In general, the situation is so much better than three or four years ago, that we have to recognise that,” he said, adding that around 1.7 million girls were now enrolled at school.

At present only 18 percent of Afghan women can read and write, putting even basic tasks like shopping out of the reach of some women because they cannot tell banknotes apart.

The Taliban banned all girls education when they were in power from 1996-2001, and in recent years militants linked to the hardline Islamists have destroyed girls’ schools and attacked their students.

To cut back attacks on schools, UNICEF asks local communities to contribute money or labour to their construction, which cuts costs and encourages parents to protect the building.

The fight for control of Afghanistan has also undermined children’s physical security and helped push some into work because of their parents’ precarious economic situation.

“The insecurity, the war, the rising food prices and difficult economic situation across south Asia has meant more and more families are at the margin of poverty so they don’t have much choice but to send their children to work,” Toole said. (Editing by Jon Hemming)