Girls’ Education Progresses in Afghanistan, but Will It Last?

New school in Helmand Province in Afghanistan
The Abbazan girls' school, above, is part of a network of 91 schools built or refurbished by the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, led by Western forces in Afghanistan. From 2007 to 2013, the number of students enrolled in Helmand, a bastion of the Taliban, rose from about 54,000 to about 130,000, including nearly 30,000 girls, up from zero in 2001. The number of teachers rose to 3,450 in 2013 from 1,570 in 2007.

Since the United States-led coalition toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, education for girls has become more accessible in some parts of the country, but many factors continue to stymie its progress.

Panelists discussed girls’ education in Afghanistan during a recent event held for the Commission on the Status of Women’s 2014 session at the United Nations. The panelists noted the challenges and successes of government and other parties who are invested in Afghan girls’ education, while some audience members during the question-answer period took umbrage at a panelist’s discussion of private schools in Afghanistan, saying they catered to well-off families.

The panel was moderated by Irwin Arieff, a contributor to PassBlue and formerly a Reuters correspondent in Europe and at the UN. Panelists were Martin Grunditz, the ambassador of Sweden to the UN; Anju Malhotra, an adviser on gender and equality at Unicef; and Semiha Topal, an assistant professor of sociology at Faith University in Istanbul, who talked about the private schools.

Zahir Tanin, the permanent representative to the UN from Afghanistan, gave opening remarks, as the event was sponsored by his government and the Peace Islands Institute, a nonprofit Turkish organization. Tanin acknowledged that girls’ education was crucial to the growth of Afghanistan and talked about his government’s efforts in promoting schooling. He cited progress made and the challenges that remain: a serious lack of infrastructure and security, among other problems. The panelists held similar views.

According to Unicef, fewer than a million students were enrolled in school in 2001, none of them girls. Today, more than 8.3 million students attend school, and nearly 40 percent of them are female.

“Access to education is challenged by security, long distances to schools, traditional views of girls’ education, lack of female teachers,” Grunditz said. He also talked about Sweden’s vested interest in Afghan education.

“Few things seem to attract the attention of the Swedish public as much as education, especially the education of girls,” he said. The country remains the largest donor to the UN program in the country, he pointed out.

Like Grunditz, who focused on Sweden’s contributions to education, Topal spoke of private Turkish contributions to establish private all-girls’ schools in Afghanistan, a relatively new form of education for the country that seems to cater to elite families. The Turkish schools, popularly known as the Afghan-Turk high schools, have more boys’ schools at the moment. During the 2000s, when the Taliban banned education for girls, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan was most prominent in education resistance. It helped set up home schools and secret schools for boys and girls.

Although panelists agreed that Afghanistan had made advances in educating girls, Malhotra of Unicef also cited the dearth of qualified teachers, and she urged people to be more ambitious in their approach to getting girls in school.

“Many times we tend to be unambitious, because we think we are starting from zero, but I would encourage people to be ambitious for girls, to aim for secondary schools,” she said. Malhotra told the audience a story of a Muslim village in India where it was once considered a taboo for girls to go to school. Two girls dressed in hijabs that fully covered their faces took rickshaws to school everyday, she said.

Twenty years later, it was considered a shame if a woman did not go to school in the same village. Malhotra’s story sparked a lot of questions in the audience, and many wanted to know what had changed the status quo.

Malhotra said the tipping point was what changed the lives of women in the village: going to school led to jobs, women were getting married later and infant mortality rates went down, all of which were noticed by the community.  Afghanistan needs to achieve a similar shift, she said.

The tipping point usually takes a courageous human being, like the two girls who took rickshaws to school every day, coupled with the federal government’s realization that education for girls deserves utmost attention, Malhotra said, listing the examples of Sri Lanka, India, China, Taiwan and Japan in their strong investments in education.

Malhotra also stressed the need to move quickly to find solutions to enrolling more girls in school and that everyone involved in such work should aim high. She added that a short-term remedy of bringing “mobile schools” into Afghan villages where students lived too far to walk to classes has achieved some success.

Audience at Afghan girls' education event
An audience member at the Afghan girls' education event, held at the UN in March 2014.

“The point is that you have to raise the bar each time. Maybe we shouldn’t be so slow in raising the bar. Maybe we should leap forward,” she said.

Audience members also asked questions about Topal’s research on girls’ education in Afghanistan. She discussed at length her study on the Afghan-Turk private schools and the impact they have had on Afghan girls.

Topal said that Afghan parents often scouted the schools for their international curriculum and university preparatory lessons, but an audience member quickly pointed out that while Turkish schools were successful in Afghanistan, they did nothing to help a majority of girls who could not pay expensive school fees, even though many students receive some scholarship aid, Topal said.

“How can a tailor or a farmer send their child when the fees are $50 a month?”  Mahbouba Seraj, an audience member and an Afghan women’s rights defender based in Kabul, asked.

Topal quickly pointed out that the contributions to girls’ education was not a government attempt, but that the schools were run by the generosity of private individuals who did not have an unlimited pool of money. (A Peace Islands Institute spokesman said later that the schools were run as nonprofits, financed mostly by Turkish businessmen.) Topal urged international donors to get involved in the schools, which she said after the panel discussion had no religious affiliation.

In a separate email interview, Seraj said she was disappointed by the talk, and said the NATO and US troops leaving the country by the end of this year could have an effect on girls education.

“Lack of security has and will affect girls’ education in Afghanistan. Parents will not allow their daughters to get out of the house and go to school for fear of what might happen to them on the way,” she wrote, adding that insecurity was the reason many women could not go to schools in the south and southeast regions of Afghanistan.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has refused to sign a security deal with the US that would allow some American troops to stay after 2014.

Another audience member at the discussion thought it was important to acknowledge that Afghanistan wasn’t always a country where women had to adorn themselves in hijabs. She talked about a golden age of Afghanistan, which lasted from the 1930s to the 70s, when women were free to wear what they chose in the cities.

The talk ended as Tanin, the Afghan ambassador, said a few words that mirrored the audience member who wanted to remember Afghanistan as a country where extremism had not been a norm of life.

“Women are victims of conflict: that is what pushed them in holes,” he said.

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