Education is a lifeline for all: Nearly 80% of girls are out of school in Afghanistan as education system 'hangs by a thread'
Almost 80% of girls have been denied their right to education in provinces in Afghanistan where secondary schools have remained closed for girls, almost a month since the Taliban extended the ban on secondary school girls attending classes.
Secondary schools for girls were ordered to shut down in late March, just hours after being reopened for the first time since the Taliban's return to power in August.
The shocking U-turn came after a secret meeting of the group's leadership in the city of Kandahar, the Taliban's de facto power centre. Officials have never justified the ban, apart from saying the education of girls must be according to "Islamic principles".
A new analysis by Save the Children, UNICEF and its Education Cluster partners show the majority of secondary school girls – about 850,000 out of 1.1 million – are not attending classes, with many girls revealing that they are depressed and heartbroken at being denied their fundamental right to learn.
"Education is a lifeline for all children, especially girls"
“Girls were absolutely shattered when they arrived at classes – excited for the new school year – and were told to go home,” said Olivier Franchi, Save the Children Afghanistan’s Acting Asia Regional Director.
“Education is a lifeline for all children, especially girls. Without it, they are at increased risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation, including early marriage There is no issue – administrative, logistical or otherwise – that can possibly justify the continuation of a policy that denies girls access to their education.”
Despite promising a softer version of their previous harsh regime, from 1996 until 2001, the Taliban restrictions have crept in.
Women are effectively shut out of most government jobs, and ordered to dress according to the Taliban's strict interpretation of the Quran.
The Taliban also ordered Afghanistan's airlines to stop women from boarding flights unless they were escorted by a "mahram", or adult male relative and have already banned women from solo inter-city travel.
In March, two female Muslim ministers – Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Qatar's Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah Al Khater – together held talks with the Taliban's acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Doha amid the mounting concerns over women's rights in the country
They were the first foreign representatives to meet a Taliban leader since the group sent girls home.
"We have abandoned Afghanistan once, and we know what the result was"
The same month, Qatar's foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari said it was important for the Taliban to hear it from the Muslim world that "the teachings of Islam do not confine women".
"While we understand the sensitivity behind pledging for Afghanistan in this climate, we stress also the importance of not isolating Afghanistan again. This legitimises radical positions," he told reporters in March.
"We should be very strong in condemnation and we should be very clear in talking to the Taliban about any infringement on human rights but also we should not abandon Afghanistan. We have abandoned Afghanistan once, and we know what the result was."
Everyone should be educated
Fourteen-year-old Parvana* from the Kabul province hasn’t been able to attend formal schooling due to fears of violence but has instead been attending Save the Children-run community-based education classes.
“When my brother was going to school and I couldn’t previously, I felt awful. All I wanted was to go to school, to study, to become someone in the future and make my family and the people from this area proud," Parvana said.
“Education is not only important for girls but everyone should be educated. No one is born to stay at home. We are born to work hard, study and reach our goals," she added.
“People were scared when the transition of power happened, as they were not allowing many girls to go to education facilities. Even if they were allowed, girls were too scared to go to class."
It is estimated that almost eight million school-aged children need support to access education right now in Afghanistan - an increase from 2.6 million compared to last year.
"Education is not only important for girls, but everyone should be educated. No one is born to stay at home. We are born to work hard, study and reach our goals"
Insecurity, poverty, cultural traditions, poor infrastructure, inadequate learning materials and a lack of qualified female and male teachers are continuing barriers to children accessing education.
Shukuria*, 28, is from a southern province of Afghanistan and was married at the age of 17 to a man 35 years her senior and is now a mother to five children. Shukuria’s husband can no longer work and her eldest son, who is 12, works in a car repair shop to help the family make ends meet.
She missed out on school as a girl and, without any education, she has struggled to get a job to provide for her children and husband. At the age of 25, she decided to get an education and is now supported by Save the Children’s girls' education classes.
"Education is the most important thing in life. For my children, I hope they study and improve and get to live their dreams. For myself, I hope to become a good teacher and to serve the students of this society," said Shukuria.
In March, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai told a meeting of international politicians and business leaders that the ban would be more difficult to enforce than during the Taliban's first spell in power.
"I think it was much easier for the Taliban (to enforce) a ban on girls' education back in 1996," said Yousafzai, who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for all children's right to education.
"It is much harder this time -- that is because women have seen what it means to be educated, what it means to be empowered. This time is going to be much harder for the Taliban to maintain the ban on girls' education.
"This ban will not last forever."
The fundamentalist Taliban stopped girls from attending school during its rule of Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted by a US-led international coalition in 2001.
Yousafzai, who survived a Pakistani Taliban assassination attempt when she was 15, said girls' schooling should be a condition of letting the Taliban-ruled country back into international life.
"They shouldn't be recognised if they didn't recognise the human rights of women and girls," she said.
"The education system in Afghanistan is hanging by a thread and now is not the time to back away"
In the 20 years between the Taliban's two reigns, girls were allowed to go to school and women were able to seek employment in all sectors, though the country remained socially conservative.
No country has yet recognised the Taliban government and many have said they cannot resume aid to the country until basic rights, including education, are upheld.
The head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Achim Steiner, warned that Afghanistan risks becoming a forgotten crisis unless the Taliban reopens schools for girls.
“The international community also has an essential role to play and must continue to provide funding to support and protect girls who are still in school. The education system in Afghanistan is hanging by a thread and now is not the time to back away,” Save the Children's Franchi added.
Shehrazade Shams is a freelance writer based in London