The pitfalls and promises of girls’ education in Afghanistan

A year 10 class in one of the schools indigo has supported

By Ali Reza Yunespour, Partnership Coordinator  

The current academic year in Afghanistan (March-November 2021) has been a challenging time for all, especially for girls’ education across the country. However, girls and women have remained determined to maintain their right to education and civic participation amidst the increasing political uncertainty and worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.  

From March until the fall of the Afghan Government in August 2021, public and private schools were officially open for girls and boys across the country, however most were closed due to the pandemic. The government had attempted to duplicate schooling online however that did not work for the majority of students, especially in rural areas, due to increasing violence and insecurity, deepening poverty and lack of access to electricity and the internet.1 In addition to more than 3 million school-aged children who were not enrolled in schools, more and more enrolled students withdrew from schooling.  

More barriers for girls’ education  

The rapid fall of the Afghan Government shattered many hopes and left school-aged children and tertiary students in complete disarray. In the initial days of taking control of Kabul, the Taliban once again asked girls and women to stay home. They were told that schools and universities are not safe for girls and women.  

Under growing calls for immediate access to education for all, the Taliban interim cabinet, formed on 7 September, allowed primary and secondary schools to reopen for male students. They also allowed girls to attend primary schools in urban and rural areas. While most primary students across the country have attended their classes in October and November, including in indigo foundation’s partner schools in Ghazni, Maidan Wardak and Bamyan provinces, some families have not been able to send their children to schools.  

In August 2021, International Rescue Committee reported that the number of people internally displaced by conflict in Afghanistan rose by 230,000 people from June to August.2 Families are among those forced to abandon their homes as we know firsthand from our partners, many of these internally displaced families have not returned to their homes and their children are still out of school. Moreover, the continued political uncertainty, reported fear of the Taliban, targeted suicide attacks and the worsening humanitarian crisis has forced thousands to flee to neighbouring countries. According to the UNHCR, more than 48,000 Afghan nationals have sought refuge in these countries as of early November 2021.3  

 Public higher education institutions have remained closed for all students mostly because of lack of budget and a shortage of qualified administrative and academic staff. Private higher education institutions have been asked by the Taliban interim cabinet to hold separate classes and, if possible, even separate campuses for male and female students. Despite opening, student enrolment has significantly reduced in the past three months. Apart from resource issues and a lack of qualified female teachers to teach female students, most families have lost income to support their children, especially girls, in these universities. The majority of private higher education institutions have resumed some activities, but are struggling to pay staff salaries and attract new students.  

When there is an official ban for girls to attend secondary schools and there are growing economic pressures on their families, girls and women are the first to be denied their right to education. In recent weeks, there have been disturbing reports of early forced marriages for young girls across the country.4  

Voices of hope  

There are several voices of hope for girls’ education in Afghanistan. The first voice, and perhaps the most important one, is the ongoing protests in Kabul, and elsewhere in the country, that are calling for the right to education for girls and the rights of women to work and engage in public debate. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, ‘Women across Afghanistan continue to protest, asking for schools to reopen and for women’s right to work’.5 These ongoing protests show a fundamental social change in Afghanistan, partly arising from increased education and greater connections with the rest of the world in the past two decades. Unlike the Taliban’s first time in power in the 1990s, when they faced little social resistance against their education policies towards women and girls. 

Voices within Afghanistan are also supported by diplomatic efforts and initiatives from outside calling for gender equity in education. On 27 October, Education Cannot Wait Director Yasmine Sherif urged the world to support education for girls in Afghanistan, adding that ‘Their education cannot wait … Financing and funding cannot wait. And our own humanity cannot wait’.6  

Similarly, the young Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is leading the virtual campaign, Stand with Afghan Girls, which has been supported to date by nearly two million signatories from around the world. It calls on the Taliban to reverse their ban on girls’ education in secondary schools and looked to wealthy nations and Muslim countries to support girls’ education in Afghanistan.  

Amidst these political and social pressures, female students have been allowed to return to secondary schools in a few provinces of Afghanistan in recent weeks. However, these schools face acute shortages of resources and primary and secondary teachers have not received any salary in the past several months. With the continued UN and US sanctions on Taliban members and the unlikely recognition of interim cabinet in the near future, UNICEF has taken the lead to start directly providing salaries for teachers in Afghanistan.  

Despite these efforts, there are still many political, financial, and socio-cultural challenges for girls’ education in Afghanistan. Over the past three months, we have continued to work closely with our local partners to understand the changing situation on the ground and provide support where we can to assist our colleagues and their communities. Our first priority has been the safety and security of the people we work with. We are acutely aware that with winter coming, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan will deepen and we remain committed to stand with our community partners as they face off these challenges.