Every Afghan girl deserves a place in school
Thousands of women and girls have taken to the streets of Afghanistan’s cities to protest the repeated violation of their right to an education. The trigger for the protests – occurring simultaneously with protests in Iran – was last month’s terrorist attack on an education center in Kabul that killed 53 students and injured more than 110 – most of them girls and young women. But this was just the latest in a long series of attacks against female students, many of which targeted girls from the Hazara community.
September’s deadly attack, which occurred as female students were getting ready to take a practice university entrance exam, came on the heels of an extremely damaging year for girls’ education in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan following the US military’s withdrawal in August 2021, its leaders promised to keep all primary, secondary, and tertiary schools open for both boys and girls. But it soon reneged. In March of this year, it barred girls from attending school beyond the sixth grade, effectively revoking the right to learn. When women in Kabul and other cities protested, Taliban forces responded violently, beating protesters and firing warning shots over their heads. Most of the 1,880 girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan are currently shuttered, and the Taliban has threatened to close those that remain in operation.
At the same time, increased levels of conflict and violence, together with a severe drought and a succession of economic shocks, have made Afghan girls and women more vulnerable. These developments have resulted in an even greater degradation of women’s rights, as evidenced by Afghanistan’s higher rates of early marriage and child labor since the Taliban takeover.
What makes the Taliban’s decision to prohibit girls’ secondary education even more tragic is that it reversed two decades of significant progress in expanding girls’ access to education in Afghanistan. The number of Afghan girls enrolled in school increased from just 100,000 in 2000 to more than 3.5 million in 2019, and female literacy doubled between 2011 and 2018. But while the Education Cannot Wait fund and its partners – including UNICEF, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Save the Children – continue to try to reach these girls, the Taliban ban has undoubtedly forced many more girls out of school.
Most of the 1,880 girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan are currently closed, and the Taliban has threatened to shut those that remain in operation
Gordon Brown and Yasmine Sherif
We must follow the lead of the Afghan women and girls protesting in the streets, risking their lives to fight for their fundamental rights, and take immediate action. For starters, the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation must use their platform and demand that Afghanistan’s de facto authorities ensure that secondary-school girls return to school and that educational institutions, teachers, and students, particularly girls, are protected from attacks. Moreover, every young and adolescent girl must be welcomed back into classrooms with the teachers, infrastructure, and supplies needed for a quality education.
Given the disastrous economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the international community must ensure that schools have sufficient resources to provide safe and protective spaces and quality education for all girls and boys, including those living with disabilities. We must also provide Afghan educators with the training and materials they need to teach their students.
In a country as ravaged by war and disaster as Afghanistan is, we must also guarantee that all girls and boys have access to mental-health resources and psychosocial support. And we must all work to establish alternative learning environments for girls and boys who cannot attend public schools.
The Education Cannot Wait fund has invested more than $58 million in education in Afghanistan since 2017, some of it through emergency responses and some through a multiyear resilience program launched in 2019. Owing to the dedicated work of our partners, this funding has reached 51% of Afghanistan’s young female students and more than 181,000 girls and boys altogether. Soon, we will launch a new multiyear program to increase girls’ and boys’ access to community-based education, even in the most remote and challenging environments.
But much more needs to be done. The women and girls of Afghanistan are fighting for their rights in the face of violent attacks, and they are asking for help. It is our collective duty to heed their call.
• Gordon Brown, a former prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Chair of Education Cannot Wait’s High-Level Steering Group, and Chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. Yasmine Sherif is Director of Education Cannot Wait.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. www.project-syndicate.org