Over a decade ago, a hardwon constitutional victory gave Afghan women an equal opportunity in education. They proved their mettle, inspiring a new generation. But those gains are now being reversed.
Afghan girls were prevented from returning to school on Saturday on September 11 as classrooms across Afghanistan reopened for the first time since the Taliban took over the country, raising fears that their hardline regime will deprive millions of Afghan girls of their right to education.
As the day unfolded, many Afghans found it hard to reckon with the sight of schools without female teachers and students.
"All male teachers and students should attend their high schools and religious seminaries," the Taliban said, not mentioning whether their regime will allow high school girls to study in schools.
So once again, a new generation of Afghan girls fell victim to the Taliban's narrow-minded approach, turning all the hopes and aspirations they had imagined for their progress and self-sufficiency into despair.
Women, who were considered an active and dynamic part of Afghan society, are now forced to stay at home and isolate themselves.
"I wanted to become a journalist. I don't think I can fulfil that dream now. I don't know if they (Taliban) would let us go back to school. Even if they allowed us to attend the high schools again, there would be no quality education," Zeinab, a 17-year-old student who studied in grade nine in Herat, told TRT World.
When the Taliban were in power in the late 90s, they imposed draconian restrictions on women, banning them from education, work and forbidding them from leaving the house without wearing a burqa or without a male companion.
Ever since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, Afghanistan's education sector improved significantly with enrolments in schools and literacy rates -- especially for girls and women -- rising to great margins.
The number of girls in primary school has increased from almost zero in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2018. Today 4 out of 10 students in primary education are girls, while the female literacy rate nearly doubled in a decade to 43 percent in 2018.
Numerous legal and policy actions were initiated over the last two decades to expand access, and enhance the quality of education while diminishing inequalities between girls and boys. For instance, in 2010, the former Afghan government ratified Convention against Discrimination in Education, providing the main legal framework for the right to education in Afghanistan.
The law clearly states that citizens of Afghanistan, be it a man or a woman, have equal rights to education. The law left no room open for any kind of discrimination.
Now there is increasing concern that the right to education and lifelong learning opportunities, which the Taliban considers inappropriate for girls and women, could be curtailed.
"I never saw this classroom so empty in the past two decades. All the students have lost faith towards a bright future and have become pessimistic,” said a teacher at Gohar Shad Begum girls’ high school in Faryab.
A 16-year-old Marjan recently went to her school in Mazar-e-Sharif along with her younger sister. She returned home feeling dejected.
"Our classmates and teachers were not there. I am speechless and have no idea about my future," she said.
The Taliban appeared moderately more open to women's education when they ordered all primary school students back to school. Nevertheless, if the secondary schools do not reopen for girls, the commitments to allow primary education would become vague.
The primary schools for male students and teachers started in the provincial city of Farah, furthermore primary schools in districts, especially Bakwa district, the pivot home to the massive narcotics production and trade, are unclear.
Musa, the father of three children, said, "In the past two years my two daughters and son did not go to school due to war and Covid-19."
Three hundred fifty-seven schools are operating in Farah province, 83 of which are dedicated to girls. Most of those girls’ schools are in the Farah provincial city. Outside the city, though, the schools are almost entirely devoted to boys’ education.
Afghanistan is one of the backward countries in the world with the worst conditions for education. Years of war and insecurity led to the severe shortage of teachers and educational materials and left academic infrastructure in tatters.
About four kilometres away from the centre of Herat, the primary school named Shahid Abdul Hai in Injil district's Hawadeh village has been reopened for about 320 children studying in the first, second, and third grades.
According to locals, livestock used to be stored in the building which is now a government-run primary school.
The majority of people in Afghanistan – around 71 percent – live in rural areas, with 24 percent living in urban areas. 245 out of 412 urban and rural districts do not have a single qualified female teacher.
90 percent of qualified female teachers are located in the nine major urban centres (Kabul, Herat, Nangarhar, Mazar, Badakhshan, Takhar, Baghlan, Jawzjan, and Faryab). Over 5000 schools are without usable buildings, boundary walls, safe drinking water or sanitation facilities.
While the efforts of activists were to improve conditions of schools and colleges in rural Afghanistan, the change in regime on August 15 and the Taliban's reluctance to allow women to attain knowledge has reversed years of hard work to bridge the gender gap in the field of education.
It is imperative to keep the spotlight on the plight of girl's education in Afghanistan since the new regime is revealing its deep-rooted hostility toward Afghan women, so the eyes and ears of the world must remain focused on the country.
A Taliban leadership meeting was recently held to discuss the male civil service staff's job counting to start from 20th of September.
The Minister of Education, which accounts for about 68 percent of the total civil service staff, conducted the meeting without the presence of thousands of female civil service staff.
By distinguishing between boys and girls, preventing girls from going to school and women to work, the Taliban have once again shown that they are still primitive and petrified. They are opposed to civilization, improvement and international rules, regulations, laws & standards.
Entering into a dialogue with such a group is an arduous and time-consuming task.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore expressed her concerns with doors of opportunities being suddenly slammed in an Afghan woman's face.
“We are deeply worried, however, that many girls may not be allowed back at this time,” Fore said.
Public expenditure on education is incompetent and deeply reliant on international aid: A significant portion of the core budget expenditures during the last five years was funded through donor aid, reaching 49 percent in 2020.
The average per-student expenditure in Afghanistan is AFN 3800 (USD 49). The Ministry of Education has the third-largest allocation, at AFN 35 billion (USD 460 million).
In the current situation, a change in the education system to separate female teachers from teaching male students will increase expenditures.
The reduction of financial resources will jeopardize progress. With the profound political changes in Afghanistan in August and as the U.S. and other Western countries have frozen more than $9 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign assets, nearly its entire reserves, such a heavy dependence on aid in running the education system raises several intricate questions on how to sustain past progress in education to ensure learning continuity.