Girls Just Want an Education: the Fight for Women’s Schooling in Afghanistan
By Megan Kenslea
In 2006, Afghan president Hamid Karzai cried during a speech he made in Kabul on International Women’s Day. “From fear of terrorism, from threats of the enemies of Afghanistan, today as we speak, some 100,000 Afghan children who went to school last year, and the year before last, do not go to school,” Karzai said in his speech. Karzai spoke of the violent attacks on schools in the southern provinces of Afghanistan that have become an unfortunate, yet endemic part of life in the nation since late 2005.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, sporadic attacks on schools were rare, though not unusual. The increased violence and targeted attacks on schools began in late 2005, when militant Islamist extremist groups, including the Taliban, began to resurge. The attacks continued to increase through early 2006, and by mid-2006, “were averaging one school a day.” Specifically, the schools that were targeted either received foreign funding and support, or taught girls.
Motivations for these attacks are twofold. One motive is the ideological opposition to female education in Afghanistan. Another motive for attacks is that they force schools to close, spreading “fear and instability to undermine the authority of the state locally.” Regardless of the motive, the attacks have been successful in driving students, particularly girls, away from schools. In a country where fewer than half are literate, the extremist attacks only further serve to perpetuate the cycle of extreme poverty, mainly caused by a lack of education.
Since 2005, the Taliban campaign “has been largely aimed against education.” Attacks on schools have been widespread, particularly in rural areas that lack strong infrastructure and southern provinces, where the Taliban resurgence has been particularly strong. However, most of the attacks have specifically targeted schools and teachers that educate girls, as well as female students themselves. The attacks have taken many forms, including bombings, arson, and shooting attacks.
The most common form of attack is “night letters,” distributed in public places including mosques, schools, and routes to school, which “[make] credible threats of violence” to students. Some of these attacks have been successful. Students throughout Afghanistan, particularly girls, have dropped out of schools after attacks or threats, fearful of their safety. Yet the number of teachers and students who remain in school defying attacks still abounds.
History of Women’s Education Under the Taliban Rule
Under Taliban rule, from 1996-2001, women were severely restricted in all aspects of society, particularly from education. Education for women has historically been undervalued in Afghanistan, but never more so than under the Taliban rule. “Arguing that the education of women is un-Islamic, [in 1996, when the Taliban came to power] officials immediately closed down schools for girls, dismissed women teachers, and prohibited females of any age from attending any school not strictly for the teaching of the Qur’an.”
When the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, “over 80% of the population was illiterate and a third of the country’s 8,000 schools had been destroyed.” In late 2001, the outlook for education, specifically for girls, seemed promising. At the time, the World Bank estimated that just 775,000 children were in school. By mid 2006, that number was close to 5.2 million. These gains are, of course, noteworthy. For about three years after the fall of the Taliban, “everybody wanted to send their daughters to school. For example, in [the] Argandob district, girls were ready, women teachers were ready,” said a provincial official in Kandahar (to Human Rights Watch).
However, once attacks on schools began to spread in 2005, attendance at schools began to drop. “When two or three schools burned, then nobody wanted to send their girls to school after that.” After the influx of violence by the Taliban and other rebel groups, particularly in the south and southeastern regions, some speculate that hundreds of thousands of students who once attended schools no longer do. The attacks on schools in Afghanistan have forced entire districts to close, and today, Human Rights Watch estimates nearly one-third of districts in Afghanistan no longer have girls’ schools. For long-term development to be successful, infrastructure, including educational infrastructure, must be built up and protected. “Education plays a significant role in providing the productive skills that are necessary for the implementation of development goals in agriculture, industry, and health;” if access to education is continually denied, much of Afghanistan faces a future steeped in a cycle of poverty.
Situation as it Stands
One of the only solutions that has been successful in some areas is a community-wide effort to return to schools after attacks. According to a UNESCO report, some communities have formed school protection committees, with the support of a national system that tracks, monitors, and advises on security developments. Other strategies that have worked are UNICEF-assisted efforts to establish smaller schools within communities or homes – “mini-neighborhood gathering places” – to keep schools unobtrusive and shield them from attacks.
Unfortunately, the grave reality of the situation is that no community or school can be effective without the support of the Afghan government and international aid organizations; two groups that “have largely failed to provide adequate assistance to promote and protect the development of Afghanistan’s education system.” There are myriad obstacles in the way of reviving the education system, which just a few years ago seemed poised to prosper. The major obstacle, though, is the lack of commitment within the government to report attacks and school closures. “The pressure to present a positive image about advances in education in Afghanistan,” coupled with a fear that reports of attacks and closures “could cause donors to cut off much-needed funding” has led to a gross underreporting of the attacks. This, coupled with the lack of infrastructure to monitor attacks and their effects, are the largest detriment to any progress the Afghan education system can make.
 “Night letters” take two forms: some stand alone, as just a threat of violence, while others are coupled with attacks (Coursen-Neff and Zia-Zarifi, Lessons in Terror, 4)