Afghan girls face an uncertain future after 1 year of not going to school

Kabul, Afghanistan — For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it’s been a year since they entered a classroom. With no sign that the ruling Taliban will let them go back to school, some are trying to find ways to stop the education of a generation of young women from stagnating.

At a home in Kabul, dozens recently gathered for classes at an informal school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and mathematics to girls who are about to go to high school.

“When the Taliban wanted to take away women’s rights to education and work, I wanted to oppose their decision by teaching these girls,” Nazhand told The Associated Press.

Her school is one of several underground schools that have been in operation since the Taliban took over the country a year ago and banned girls from continuing their education after sixth grade. While the Taliban have allowed women to continue attending college, this exception becomes irrelevant once girls stop graduating from high school.

“There is no way to fill this gap, and this situation is very sad and worrying,” Nazhand said.

Aid agency Save the Children interviewed nearly 1,700 boys and girls, ages 9 to 17, in seven provinces to assess the impact of education restrictions.

The survey, conducted in May and June and released Wednesday, found that more than 45% of girls do not attend school, compared to 20% of boys. It also found that 26% of girls show signs of depression, compared to 16% of boys.

Nearly the entire population of Afghanistan was thrown into poverty and millions were unable to feed their families when the world cut funding in response to the Taliban takeover.

Teachers, parents and experts are all warning that the country’s many crises, including the devastating economic collapse, are especially damaging to girls. The Taliban have restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home and issued a dress code requiring them to cover their faces except their eyes, although the codes are not always followed.

The international community is demanding that the Taliban open schools for all girls, and the US and the EU have plans to pay salaries directly to Afghan teachers so that the sector can continue to operate without channeling funds through the Taliban.

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But the issue of girls’ education seems to be mired in behind-the-scenes differences between the Taliban. Some in the movement support bringing girls back to school – either because they have no religious objection to it or because they want to improve ties with the world. Others, especially rural tribal elders who are the backbone of the movement, vehemently oppose it.

During the first time they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban imposed much stricter restrictions on women, banned schooling for all girls, banned women from working and required them to wear an all-encompassing burqa when they went to school. went outside.

In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, an entire generation of women returned to school and work, especially in urban areas. The Taliban seemed to recognize those changes and assured Afghans when they took back control last year that they would not return to the heavy hand of the past.

Officials have publicly urged them to send teenage girls back to school, but say it will take time to set up logistics for strict gender segregation to ensure an “Islamic framework.”

Hopes were raised in March: just before the new school year was due to start, the Taliban education ministry announced that everyone would be allowed to return. But on March 23, the day of the reopening, the decision was suddenly reversed, surprising even ministry officials. It seemed that at the last minute the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, bowed to the opposition.

Shekiba Qaderi, a 16-year-old, recalled turning up that day, ready to go to 10th grade. She and all her classmates laughed and were excited, until a teacher came in and told them to go home. The girls burst into tears, she said. “That was the worst moment of our lives.”

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Since then, she has been trying to keep up with her studies at home and read her textbooks, novels and history books. She studies English through movies and YouTube videos.

The unequal access to education cuts through families. Shekiba and a younger sister can’t go to her school, but her two brothers can. Her older sister studies law at a private university. But that is little consolation, said their father, Mohammad Shah Qaderi. Most professors have left the country, causing the quality of education to deteriorate.

Even if the young woman gets a college degree, “what’s the benefit?” asked Qaderi, a 58-year-old retired government official.

“She won’t have a job. The Taliban will not let her work,” he said.

Qaderi said he always wanted his children to have a higher education. Now that may be impossible, so he’s thinking about leaving Afghanistan for the first time after years of war.

“I can’t watch them grow before my eyes without education; it’s just not acceptable to me,” he said.

Underground schools offer another alternative, albeit with limitations.

A month after the Taliban takeover, Nazhand began teaching street children to read with informal outdoor lessons in a park near her. Women who couldn’t read or write joined them, she said. Sometime later, a benefactor who saw her in the park rented a house for her to teach, and bought tables and chairs. Once she operated inside, Nazhand included teenage girls who were no longer allowed to attend public school.

Now there are about 250 students, including 50 or 60 schoolgirls above the sixth grade.

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“I don’t just teach them school subjects, but I also try to teach them how to fight and stand up for their rights,” Nazhand said. The Taliban have not changed since they first came to power in the late 1990s, she said. “These are the same Taliban, but we shouldn’t be the same women of those years. We must fight: by writing, by raising our voices, in every possible way.”

Nazhand’s school, and other schools like it, are technically illegal under the current Taliban restrictions, but so far they have not closed hers. However, at least one other person who runs a school refused to speak to reporters, fearing possible repercussions.

Despite her unremitting efforts, Nazhand is concerned about the future of her school. Her benefactor paid six months’ rent for the house, but he died recently, and she has no way of continuing to pay the rent or supplies.

For students, the underground schools are a lifeline.

“It’s so hard when you can’t go to school,” said one of them, Dunya Arbabzada. “Every time I walk past my school and see the locked door… it’s so disturbing to me.”


Faiez reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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