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On International Women’s Day, Don’t Forget Afghanistan’s Women and Girls

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On International Women’s Day, Don’t Forget Afghanistan’s Women and Girls

Afghan women and girls remain locked out of education, threatening to create a lost generation. They need help – and you can take action.

On International Women’s Day, Don’t Forget Afghanistan’s Women and Girls

A march for the rights of Afghan women and girls in London, U.K., Nov. 27, 2022.

Credit: Flickr/ Garry Knight

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that education is a fundamental human right for everyone. Yet since September 2021, the return to school for all Afghan girls over the age of 12 has been indefinitely postponed leaving 1.1 million girls and young women without access to formal education. 

Currently, 80 percent of school-aged Afghan girls and young women – 2.5 million people – are out of school. Nearly 30 percent of girls in Afghanistan have never entered primary education. 

Things have gotten worse instead of better. In December 2022, university education for women in Afghanistan was suspended until further notice, affecting over 100,000 female students attending public and private higher education institutions. 

The current situation is undoing one of Afghanistan’s major areas of progress over the past two decades. According to UNESCO reports, between 2001 and 2018, Afghanistan saw a tenfold increase in enrollment at all education levels, from around 1 million students in 2001 to around 10 million in 2018. The number of girls in primary school increased from almost zero in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2018. By August 2021, four out of 10 students in primary education were girls.

Women’s presence in Afghan higher education increased almost 20 times, from 5,000 female students in 2001 to over 100,000 in 2021. Literacy rates for women doubled during the period, from 17 percent of women being able to read and write in 2001 to nearly 30 percent for all age groups combined. 

Now all that progress risks being lost.

It has been more than 500 days since the Taliban announced that girls beyond grade six weren’t allowed to go to school, until the regime’s leaders make a longer-term decision. The ban, while nominally temporary, revived memories of when the Taliban eroded rights and marginalized women from public life two decades ago. 

Afghans are not giving up. Teachers and activists have set up secret education centers in different parts of Afghanistan to teach female students who are banned from going to school. After the Taliban closed universities to women, many volunteers, including established universities like Future Learn and highly educated scholars around the world, offered free online teaching to Afghan women who are banned from university.

But all these secret schools and online classes are temporary and not permanent. For the short term, these are perfectly sufficient but there must be a sense of urgency to take action for a long term solution. Afghan women and girls are pressed for time, as a new generation are being denied basic rights to an education. It is distressing to think that girls in the majority of the world access education effortlessly, without much thought, while the girls of Afghanistan have to fight tooth and nail for their fundamental rights. 

This is not only a very big blow to the future of Afghan girls and women, but it has a detrimental impact on the future of the country. The Taliban’s short-sightedness is causing a domino effect of catastrophic consequences. 

Afghan women and girls lived through dark times before, during the last period of Taliban rule in the 1990s. It is understandable that the world remained largely blind toward their plight back then, due to the difficulty in gathering and sharing information. However, it feels inconceivable that with today’s technology and social media presence, the struggle and suffering of Afghan women is still seemingly last on the global news agenda. 

Where is the collective outrage and activism for these women and girls in an age where a celebrity can get millions of followers on social media for posting a new fashion trend? Where are the Western women and politicians who supposedly care about feminism? If they can’t raise their voices for us, who can? 

Afghan women and girls deserve the chance to attend school and universities. They have the same hopes and dreams as women and girls around the world. The Afghan girl needs your support. She needs to be heard. She is you, actually; she is all of us. 

The problem may seem insurmountable, but any person can help and any help is valuable. 

If you can write to your local political representative, please ask them to place pressure your government to denounce the Taliban. By opening schools, universities, and all educational centers to girls and women, we will take the first big step of reopening Afghanistan as a free country. 

If you have the ability to support them financially, please sponsor an Afghan girl so she can afford the internet to study online. 

If you have particular expertise (in English language, computer studies, etc.) , you could offer your time to empower them further. 

If you are a psychologist, you could help treat the trauma that Afghan women are experiencing. 

If you are a specialist in human rights law, you could be our voice for justice. 

And if nothing else, please listen to Afghan women’s suffering. 

Please take action for us. We will remember who stood by us in our time of need. You have a voice that is louder than the wrath of the Taliban. Please use it. 

We all must do everything to keep Afghan women strong and hopeful, because if they lose their hope and the eagerness to study, to breathe, and to live, Afghanistan will lose its future. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe, because no country has a future without women. 

I would like to end by quoting my younger sister, who was in grade 11 at school and who is now banned from studying. She pointed out that when a student breaks a rule at school, the school principal expels the offender from school for a short time to punish them. 

On behalf of Afghan girls, she asks: “What is our sin that we are expelled from our schools and we are being punished now for more than 500 days?”