Afghanistan: Continuing literacy and non-formal education for youth and adults during the COVID-19 crisis

Despite improvements in education in Afghanistan since 2002, the recent gains are at risk given the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the current crisis, the government has developed a comprehensive education response plan to ensure youth and adults keep learning.

August 06, 2020 by Rie Koarai, Japan NGO Network for Education , Mohammad Yasin Samim, Deputy Ministry of Education for Literacy, the Ministry of Education, Afghanistan and Rafiullah Shahpoor, Deputy Ministry of Education for Literacy, the Ministry of Education, Afghanistan
5 minutes read
Women learning literacy in a small group
Women learning literacy in a small group.
Credit: Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA)


Afghanistan has been suffering from protracted conflict for over 40 years, which has produced recurrent and sustained situations of internally displaced persons, refugees and returnees. The country has also been exposed to other repetitive emergencies such as droughts and floods. As a result of these challenges, Afghanistan is among the few countries in South Asia with a significant number of illiterate youth and adults, estimated at over 12 million (60% of them female) (UNESCO, 2020). The overall literacy rate in the country stands at 43% (only 29.8% for women), while the literacy rate for youth (15-24) is 65%, which indicates a huge gap both in terms of age groups and gender.

Despite improvements in education since 2002, the recent gains are at risk given the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease has been spreading fast throughout the country since March which forced the government to close all educational institutions on March 14th, including public and private schools, community-based schools, and literacy courses for youth and adults.

What are the government initiatives on youth and adult literacy?

The government of Afghanistan has developed a comprehensive education response plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on the plan, the Deputy Ministry of Education for Literacy (DMoEL) developed detailed implementation guidelines for youth and adult literacy for use during the COVID pandemic, which outline: i) distance learning through TV and radio, ii) small group learning (5 students per shift in open space), iii) self and family literacy at home; iv) self-capacity building of literacy facilitators.

Although the coverage of TV literacy programs expanded from only the capital Kabul and surrounding areas before the current crisis to nationwide in mid-April, access to TV remains limited, especially in rural areas, and poor households cannot afford to purchase TVs or cover electricity costs.

Small group learning in open spaces, which is flexible and requires no technology, started in early April and has been effective in bringing literacy closer to youth and adults. Another initiative is self/family learning, through which educated family members teach non-literates at home, with literacy textbooks and some guidance provided by the government.

Interestingly, the DMoEL had been conducting self/family literacy for the past few years, even before the current crisis, and there is already a standardized learning assessment system developed with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). After passing the assessment, students receive a certificate equivalent to grade three of formal school.

These initiatives show not only how to respond to the crisis promptly with low-tech measures, but also that “preparedness” or what people already have is very important and can serve as an effective coping mechanism. As of May 21, more than 39,000 people were accessing alternative literacy programs in 27 out of the 34 provinces.

The case of a Japanese NGO in responding to learning needs of youth and adults

The DMoEL’s COVID guidelines have also helped NGOs and other partners continue literacy and skills training for youth and adults. A Japanese NGO, Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA), with the financial support of the Japan Platform, was able to re-start literacy and sewing courses for internally displaced and returnee women by April 1st after a temporary closure, with other preventive training of staff and students. It established small group learning in open spaces, keeping enough social distancing among students.

“(When the course was closed) I had fears that I might forget whatever I had learnt. It was not only my concern but my entire classmates mentioned the same. I was so pleased when I learned that the course had re-opened. It is sad that I can’t meet all the classmates at once as before but I am happy to continue learning”.

A 27-year-old female student
A woman making masks at a Community Learning Centre in Bamyan province
A woman making masks at a Community Learning Centre in Bamyan province.
Crédit : DMoEL

Women are not only beneficiaries of the project but are active change agents in the community. Women in sewing courses supported by SVA have produced protective masks to sell at a low price to villagers to prevent the spread of COVID-19, after learning good practices at the Community Learning Centers of DMoEL. Similarly, other students received sewing machines to produce masks, and literacy skills such as recording, counting and calculation were integrated as part of the activity. Health, sanitation and nutrition are also included into the literacy primer.

Towards the end of June, all 150 literacy registered students passed the required assessment to receive the government’s certificates equivalent to grade three of formal school. The project activities on literacy and sewing have been handed over to the community to continue on their own. Some of the graduates are highly motivated to teach other non-literate women in the community. As for making and selling masks, there is a plan to utilize earned income, if any, for empowering women, including through education.

“Before there were many obstacles in my life and I was always thinking how to overcome them. Now I can read and write, count money, record an expenditure. I want to continue my education and get admission in school. I told my mother that I can manage my education expenditure through sewing clothes at home and she was happier than me when she heard it”.

Fatima, 15, who participated in the learning literacy and sewing courses

At the end of June, the government prohibited small group learning to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Collective advocacy could help promote flexible and effective learning with the necessary prevention measures as described above.

A way forward

The literacy and non-formal education activities for youth and adults described here complement the large number of activities implemented by the government, for example those financed through a GPE grant of US$11 million.

Despite the efforts of the Ministry to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on learning for school children, it is likely that some students will drop-out because of this crisis, especially as the crisis continues. As the Ministry may look to address this new challenge, the demand of literacy and non-formal education for youth and adults will increase.

It is essential that youth and adults acquire literacy as a “foundation skill” along with training on health and sanitation, to recognize and apply appropriate knowledge and skills to cope with the massive crisis the world is facing. Skills training, especially for women, is needed to support households. This will lead not only to women being able to protect themselves, but also their children, families and communities.


We appreciate The Deputy Ministry of Education for Literacy and Shanti Volunteer Association for providing valuable information to produce this blog.

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Literacy, School health
South Asia: Afghanistan

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