In Afghanistan’s fifth largest city, Kunduz, 6,000 girls attend school at Ashraf-ul Madares. For eight hours a day, male instructors, who are forbidden from meeting their students face-to-face, teach the girls the Quran and the writings of Prophet Mohammed. Students must wear a full hijab at all times, no matter their age. These rules may seem severe, but they’re not unique. Ashraf-ul Madares is one of 1,300 unregistered private madrassas in Afghanistan administering religious education to thousands of girls who have nowhere else to study.
All classes in Afghanistan’s public school system are segregated by gender after third grade. The shift toward gender-segregated schools began after the Soviet invasion, when mujahedeen groups began framing that war as a jihad against secular invaders. These groups began to align with radical factions of Islam that transformed the secular education system. Following the rise of the Taliban, that practice became ingrained in Afghan life.
Gender segregation in Afghanistan’s schools forces the strained Ministry of Education, which is already short on supplies, funding, and teachers, to recreate the system for each gender. The effects of this policy are reminiscent of the “separate but equal” policies under the Jim Crow laws in the United States, demonstrated in the 30 percent gap in literacy rates between boys and girls under the age of 15.
Most troublingly, World Bank statistics show Afghanistan’s youth literacy rate for females under the age of 15 is only 32 percent. That’s 23 percent lower than the second-worst country in the region for young female literacy, Pakistan, and leagues behind other countries Afghanistan borders.
Speaking before a joint session of Congress last week, President Ashraf Ghani acknowledged many of the problems facing Afghanistan’s girls. “No country in the modern world can succeed with half of its population locked away,” Ghani declared.
Afghanistan’s separate-but-equal policy could enshrine that reality. The law ensures that girls are educated in shoddy facilities, or in many cases, not educated at all. Deputy Minister of Education Asif Nang has highlighted this problem, noting that in 40 percent of Afghan school districts there is not a single female teacher, and that in 48 percent of districts there is no access to secondary education for girls.
Patterns of early marriage compound the problem. At a growing number of unregistered private madrassas early marriage is a practice encouraged by school leaders as a sacred tradition. In response to criticism from the Ministry of Education, the head of Ashraf ul-Madares Mawlavi Abdul Khaleq replied, “Those who oppose this seminary are actually unaware of Islam or influenced by countries that support non-Islamic ideas and values in Afghanistan.”
Nearly 50 percent of Afghan girls are wed by age 18, half of them by their mid-teens. Many young women are forced to leave their education to commit themselves fully to married life.
This phenomenon is representative of larger economic problems. Poor Afghan families often commit their young daughters to early marriage so they no longer have to provide for them, and, in many cases, marry girls off for pay. The cost of supporting a daughter until she can finish her education is often too much for these families to bear.
Educating Afghanistan’s young female population is an investment vital to Ghani’s vision of Afghanistan as a regional trading hub. An educated and skilled population is needed to conduct commerce beyond its most basic functions. The United Nations has noted with significant evidence that improving access to education for women expands the stock of human capital, increases labor, and multiplies agricultural productivity. Furthermore, with the exception of resource-rich countries Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, no country in the world has achieved a per capita GDP of $10,000 with a ratio of girls to boys in primary education of less than 90 percent.
Either Afghanistan must end its separate-but-equal schooling practices or it must allocate adequate funding to provide equal education to both genders.
Ghani affirmed to Congress that three things are vital to the future success of women in Afghanistan: education, access to equal opportunities, and a cultural revolution. Perhaps addressing Afghanistan’s separate-but-equal schooling system will do just that.
Saagar Enjeti is a policy and data analyst in New York City.