Writer: Itumeleng Sibiya
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer & Artist: Nethania Nasya
Many countries around the world took the initiative to prioritise the education of girls, as research shows investing in girls' education has considerable benefits, such as the ability to strengthen economies and reduce inequality. Statistics show that a one percentage point increase in female education raises the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 percentage points, and raises annual GDP growth rate by 0.2 percentage points. It also contributes to more stable societies that gives all individuals the opportunity to fulfil their potential. "Stable", here, means there is a balance in the society, which comes in the form of independence held by both males and females - all thanks to girls' education. Despite enough evidence demonstrating how the prioritisation of girls' education can scale-up the economy, gender disparities in education persist. A recent edict made by the newly-announced Taliban government on girls' education stated that male teachers and students are allowed to return to school and resume academic activities, but there has been no mention of allowing girls to return to school, both online and offline. This makes Afghanistan the only country on earth to deny half its population from getting a secondary education.
The Taliban is an Islamic Fundamentalist Organisation founded in 1994 to impose a puritanical Islamic order on Afghanistan. The Taliban remains a credible fighting force with at least 60,000 fighters who are geared with the ability to win and hold territory. The Taliban rose to power in the late 1990s and suddenly imposed draconian restrictions on women, forbidding them from going to work, or to leave their homes without being chaperoned by a male guardian/family member, and in the case that they had to go out, they were required to wear an all-covering burqa.
A concerning issue was that women and girls were prohibited from going to school. Fortunately, in 2001, the Taliban was toppled by the U.S invasion, and the aforementioned restrictions were lifted, the gender parity in education improved. According to UNESCO, by 2018, four out of ten students enrolled in schools were girls. Now, after two decades of insurgency, the Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, sparking concerns of abusing human rights, imposing severe restrictions and failing to provide basic services. Sadly, these concerns have started to take shape, as the Taliban has already effectively banned girls from secondary education by allowing high schools to re-open only for boys.
This decree on girls' education leaves trails that lead to a tactic the Taliban used in the 1990s, which forbids females from receiving a formal education without issuing a formal prohibition. This is the hindsight many pick up on, one of which includes Heather Barr, an associate director of Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division: "Afghan women remember very well that in 1996 to 2001 they weren't told that they could never study or work. They were told to be patient and wait for a day that never came. So this moment feels very familiar. There is no reason for much optimism that this ban will end."
Female public servants are told to stay at home until further notice, nurseries in government buildings are closed and those who protest are met with violence. Women make up 25% of the parliament and serve at high levels. But now the Taliban has announced that women can no longer serve in high-ranking jobs. A further indication that the newly-announced Taliban government is systemically tightening restrictions on women is that it has handed over the ministry of women's affairs building in Kabul to the re-established ministry for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue. The newly-elected group is the same one from the 1990s, notoriously famous for enforcing policies made by the Taliban by brutally beating women who choose to resist the Taliban.
Educating females has quickly become a brave act of resistance, as demonstrated by Angela Ghayour, a member of the Afghan diaspora who founded the online Herat school, an educational resource for Afghan women and girls. The online school now has nearly 1,000 students and more than 400 volunteer teachers after the Taliban instructed girls and young women to stay home from school.
The new rule of segregating classes and teachers by gender has exacerbated a severe shortage of teachers, and has threatened to eliminate higher education opportunities for girls. Numerous parents are afraid of sending their daughters to school with armed Talibs lining the streets, while others no longer see the importance of educating their daughters who would graduate into a country where job opportunities for women are scarce.
"The right to education is a fundamental human right," said Agnes Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International. "The policies currently pursued by the Taliban are discriminatory, unjust and violate international law." The Taliban's director of education for the Balkh province, Abdul Jalil Shahidkhel, emphasized that the new government is planning to reopen girls' middle and high schools in other provinces soon--although this statement is only expected to "appease the crowd" instead of providing solid results. He continued to ask, "Why is the West so concerned about women? If the world presses that Afghan women should be the same as Western women, then it is only a dream. We know, Islam knows and our women know what to do. "
With the Taliban back in power, we do not know the future of women and girls in Afghanistan, but in it all, it takes assertiveness and bravery to push back against oppression. The many Afghan fathers and brothers who want the women in their families to get an education must take a stand. International human rights groups must also continue raising their concerns and efforts towards gender equality and fair treatment. It takes solidarity because everyone deserves education and opportunities.