Written by: Fariha Khan
The Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 – 2001 was notorious for flagrant violations of women’s rights. From blocking women’s access to education and jobs to banning public appearances for women, the military organization even encouraged public stonings of women for minor infractions in their behavior. In the decades since the U.S. invasion, women’s rights in Afghanistan have vastly improved. Some of these advances were in the education sector. By most estimates, over 3.5 million (USAID, 2021) girls are enrolled in school today as opposed to close to none under Taliban rule. However, the progress has not been substantial enough and experts fear that the situation might worsen as Afghanistan prepares for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops. Misogyny, patriarchy, sexual violence, insufficient funding, and lack of support from families have restricted access to education for millions of girls. As leverage against the Taliban wanes, structural plans that specifically aim to tackle the problems that girls face when pursuing their right to an education should be prioritized; donor funding must be reallocated, and increasing girls’ access to education must be prioritized.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, the number of children in K-12 school was 0.9 million – close to none of them girls (UNICEF, 2020: 2). Taliban rule had rendered an environment where “education was for males only” (Moghadam, 2002: 26). In the 20 years since, the number has grown to 9.2 million, with 39% accounting for girls. However, while the increase has been meaningful, it is not enough when 60% of out-of-school children are girls and enrolment levels in rural areas are as low as 14% (UNICEF, 2020: 2). Although Articles 43 and 44 of the Afghan constitution state that women have a right to education and the right will be delivered through programs designed by the state, that promise has largely been unfulfilled because of government inability. Only 2 to 6 percent of overseas development assistance is granted to the Afghan education sector and this percentage is likely to decrease (Human Rights Watch, 2017: 29), with the World Bank estimating that aid to Afghanistan could drop by as much as 90% by 2025 (Oxfam, 2012). Furthermore, attacks in girls’ schools have increased in the past couple of years along with more than 1, 000 (UNICEF, 2020: 3) school closures, bringing into question the fate of women’s rights as security forces withdraw and the Taliban comes back to power.
Because of security concerns and cultural norms, families are hesitant to send girls to co-educational schools or those with male teachers. This is an especially significant obstacle when only 16% of Afghan schools are girls-only and only 33% of Afghan teachers are women, with some provinces having as low as 1.8% female teachers (UNICEF, 2020: 4). Increased harassment, sexual, and gender-based violence has created an atmosphere where many girls equate getting an education with an invitation to harassment, explaining that they were “so frustrated with [the harassment] that I even wanted to quit…” (Burridge et al., 2015: 141). In 2009, the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (LEVAW) was introduced to tackle a range of gender-based violence crimes but its impact has been dismal.
Others have noted that the associated costs of buying textbooks, supplies, and lack of scholarships impose enormous burdens on low-income families that are already hesitant about a girl’s education. Moreover, the distance between students’ homes and schools often demotivates those enthusiastic about their education. “By the time we walked to school, the school day would end,” (Human Rights Watch, 2017: 76) explained 15-year-old Najiba when asked why she and her eight siblings do not attend school.
However, perhaps the biggest threat overall, which looms over and fuels other obstacles, is the cultural view towards girls’ education and the government’s inability to change its perception. Despite the Quran strongly encouraging education for women, the Taliban opposed girls’ education during their rule. However, during negotiations in 2019, they asserted that they were “open to education for women and girls” but “would not impose it on communities that did not accept it” (Human Rights Watch, 2020: 18). Therefore, in order to increase access to education, public perception must be shifted away from the patriarchal discourse that has prevailed for decades, especially with the re-emergence of an organization that previously made it impossible for “all but the most determined women to engage in […] basic human endeavors [such] as education…” (Moghadam, 2002: 26).
Afghanistan’s education system comprises four types of schools; government and private schools, madrassas, and community-based education (CBE). CBE, which operates independent of the Ministry of Education (MOE) and is dependant on donor funding, has proven very successful in the past and has provided access to education for girls “unable to attend formal schools due to insecurity, distance, or other constraints” (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, 2021: 147). The programs are made up of approximately 30 students scattered throughout the country and are designed specifically for communities without schools. Though informally organized, research has demonstrated the effectiveness of CBEs at increasing enrollment rates and test scores, especially for girls. More importantly, CBEs have proved particularly helpful in Taliban-held districts (Human Rights Watch, 2021) in the past and are likely to be one of the biggest avenues for education as Taliban influence expands following the withdrawal.
As the September 1st withdrawal date rapidly emerges and Taliban influence over Afghanistan grows, it is crucial that steps are taken to ensure that the progress made is not undone. For the United States and allied governments, that means establishing minimum standards for women’s education that the Afghan government must adhere to to qualify for substantial foreign aid and using its existing leverage to ensure that women in positions of power in the government and other areas of socio-political life in Afghanistan are not ousted. Most importantly, governments must come together to stress that any significant violation of women’s rights, especially those granted to women under the constitution, will result in a cut-off of foreign aid.
The Afghan government certainly has its work cut out for them – they must reroute some international funding so that a greater portion is allocated towards community-based education initiatives and salary increases and training for working-age female teachers. It also means redesigning scholarship allocation, cost-reducing initiatives, subsidizing girls’ schools, and instituting affirmative action programs to increase girls’ entry into schools. However, perhaps most importantly, the government must utilize the role of the media, religious leaders, and community elders to foster an environment receptive to girls’ education and establish nationally-backed programs to help people realize that education is a basic human right that every child deserves.
- Moghadam, V. (2002). Patriarchy, the Taliban, and Politics of Public Space in Afghanistan. Women’s Studies International Forum, 25(1), 19-31.
- Burridge, N., Payne, A., & Rahmani, N. (2015). Education Is as Important For Me as Water Is to Sustaining Life’: Perspectives on the Higher Education of Women in Afghanistan. Gender And Education, 28(1), 128-47.
- UNICEF (2020). Gender Alert on Covid-19 Afghanistan.
- Human Rights Watch (2017). “I Won’t Be A Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick”: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan.
- Aid Must Work Better for Afghans in the Next Decade. Oxfam. (2012). Retrieved 14 July 2021, from https://www.oxfamamerica.org/press/aid-must-work-better-for-afghans-in-the-next-decade.
- Human Rights Watch (2020). “You Have No Right to Complain”: Education, Social Restrictions, and Justice in Taliban-Held Afghanistan.
- Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (2021). Jan 30 Quarterly Report to Congress.
- Education. USAID. (2021). Retrieved 13 July 2021, from https://www.usaid.gov/afghanistan/education.
- Afghanistan: US Should Prioritize Rights, Civilian Protection (2021). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 15 July 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/16/afghanistan-us-should-prioritize-rights-civilian-protection.