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“Like a bird let loose” – girls’ education in Afghanistan

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Meena, an interviewee for Oxfam's High Stakes report. Image courtesy of Oxfam.

Sarah Cheverton
WVoN co-editor

This is Meena. She’s 17 years old. She’s a student in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan.

Meena is also one of the 687 Afghan students interviewed for Oxfam’s new report, High Stakes: Girls’ Education in Afghanistan, published today.

Since the fall of the Taliban, girls’ enrolment in education has increased from an estimated 5,000 under the Taliban, to a current total of 2.4 million girls. Obviously, this is a significant gain, but there’s still a long way to go.

The majority of girls in Afghanistan still do not attend school. Only 6% of Afghan women aged 25 or older have ever received any formal education, and just 12% of women aged 15 or over are literate.

“I always wanted to go to school,” said Meena, “But for a long time, we couldn’t afford it.”

“This is normal for girls in Afghanistan….The families don’t mind boys being educated, but many have problems with girls going to school.”

High Stakes makes an urgent case for safeguarding the gains already made in female education in Afghanistan. This aspiration is shared by most of the school aged girls interviewed, over 70% of whom want to continue their education.

For most of those taking part in the research project, poverty is the major barrier to girls’ education.

Meena was just 14 when she and her two sisters had to drop out of school when her father lost his job.

“I was very upset,” she said, “I cried all the time. I felt like I was in prison. I was a prisoner in a cage for over a year. I couldn’t breathe – my life seemed so limited.”

In poor households, children are also an integral part of generating a household’s income.

The head of a women’s shura (our equivalent of a local council) in Heart told researchers:

“When families have financial problems, they usually force the girls to work on farms and that is like having a full time job, so they cannot go to school. Most girls who drop out here do so because of their family’s poverty.”

Although poverty acts as a major barrier for families, schools are similarly under-resourced.

Many schools do not have the infrastructure needed to provide a quality education for girls. Just under half of schools in Afghanistan (47%) still have no building. Girls are regularly taught in tents, in temporary structures, or in the open air. Three out of four public schools do not have safe sanitation and 40% lack access to safe drinking water.

But physical infrastructure is not the only problem. There is a desperate need for better and increased teacher-training in Afghanistan. Female teachers are especially in demand.

Meena was only able to return to school when the director of a local community centre offered to pay for the basic materials she needed to study.

“They said they would buy the pens and books to let me study. When my father brought me to school himself, I felt like a bird let loose. I felt free again.”

Other Afghan girls are not so lucky. Almost 40% of those interviewed felt that early or forced marriage is also a major obstacle to girls’ education. The reasons for early and forced marriage are complex, and include economic, social and cultural factors.

Girls who are early or forcibly married are also more likely to become mothers. This creates another obstacle to education – for both the mother and for her daughters.

But underneath all these factors, the impact of the conflict and the legacy of a war-torn past creates significant barriers to girls’ education in Afghanistan.

Schools have been increasingly targeted by Armed Opposition Groups, with direct attacks on schools growing significantly since 2005.

“Even if there were teachers, we would not send our children to school,” said one mother in Kandahar, “We can’t keep them safe and they may be killed for even going to school.”

Social and cultural attitudes represent a real challenge to girls’ education, but the prevalence of such attitudes varies from region to region.

Not only do prohibitive attitudes to girls’ education prevent girls from attending school, the fear of harassment, kidnapping, elopement and cases of sexual assault also have a dramatic effect on girls’ attendance.

Yes, you read that right.

Research with Taliban leaders in southern Afghanistan suggests that the Armed Opposition Groups would restrict girls access to education and women’s access to employment.

Many of these groups have stated their intention to strictly enforce codes that would effectively curtail women’s access to public spaces, or require a male chaperone to accompany them in public spaces.

Many Armed Opposition Groups insist on such conditions as part of any peace agreement.

In High Stakes, Oxfam identifies the dangerous potential for girls’ education and women’s rights to be traded in peace negotiations.

The report calls for safeguards and guarantees specifically written into individual peace agreements or donor conditionalities on funding after international forces withdraw. But even more than this, the UN and other international donors must ensure that girls’ access to education is not traded away.

“Everything hinges on it,” said Rebecca Wynn of Oxfam, during an interview with WVoN today.

“We can lose the gains that have been made by having a peace deal that trade’s women’s rights away. So we need to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

One day, Meena wants to be a lawyer. She wants to bring justice to Afghanistan, especially to its women.

“Girls have the right to study and learn as boys do,” said Meena, “And girls are even more important for the future of Afghanistan. It is us girls who will care for the home and the country.”

“I am better off than before. I can go to school. But we need help. We don’t have chairs to sit on – we just sit on the ground. But even if we don’t get tables and chairs and textbooks, we will still go to school – our future depends on it.”

  1. This story makes me feel very sad that we often undervalue education in Britain.

  2. And not just education, Claire. I think we undervalue a whole way of life, and I think we underestimate the extent to which we are in a minority in having access to the level of privilege we do in the West….

    Thanks for commenting :)

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