PUNE CITY, India — Zulikha, a student in the 10th grade, was born in a remote village in Faryab province, Afghanistan, where the Taliban prohibits girls‘ education. At the age of eight, Zulikha’s family moved to Mazar-e-Sharif so that she and her seven sisters could go to school. Like Zulikha, many other girls in Afghanistan have faced adversities in acquiring an education. Sahar is an organization working toward providing high-quality education for underserved girls in Afghanistan. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Sophia Alhadeff, Sahar’s Operations and Campaign Manager, told the story of Zulikha as well as the stories of other girls like her who face threats in pursuing an education.
Threats to Girls’ Education in Afghanistan
The biggest threat to girls’ education in Afghanistan was the Taliban coming to power in 1996 and prohibiting almost all education for girls in the country. The takeover of the Afghan capital, Kabul, followed by over 20 years of political instability, threatened the personal securities and learning opportunities of girls.
Despite the Taliban regime ending in 2001, the impacts of the war are noteworthy threats that continue to deter education for girls in Afghanistan. Alhadeff stated that these impacts include child civilian casualties, unchecked crime, kidnapping, sexual harassment and fear of educating daughters. This fear of being targeted, the lack of safety in schools and terrorist attacks on school buildings in controlled areas are major inhibitors in the way of education for girls in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s Impact on Education
In 2006, the shadow Taliban government introduced the Lahya or the code of conduct. The Lahya forbids work as a teacher under the current state, claiming that this strengthens the system of infidels. The policy stated that Muslims should only study with religiously trained teachers. It also explained that foreign organizations who build schools are destroying Islam and should be burned down. The Lahya encouraged attacks on teachers and dictated that teachers should first be “given a warning,” beaten if they continued to teach and then killed if they did not stop.
In 2007, nearly one student or teacher was killed per day on average. In addition, nearly half of the schools in the south shut down due to fear of violence in 2008. The Taliban, as well as a whole array of other actors, were responsible for these attacks. While revisions were made to the Lahya over the years by replacing the provisions with vague stipulations, the Taliban still parasitically feeds off the incumbent state and the international community, with the agenda to hijack the education system as means to further their political motives and usurp power once again.
Other threats include harmful gender norms that result in the prioritization of boys’ education over that of girls. In Afghanistan, girls’ education is seen as undesirable or only acceptable before puberty. Alhadeff told The Borgen Project the story of Maria, a 17-year-old 11th grader who has been combating these gender norms as all her relatives oppose her education, with the exception of her father. Threats like child marriage, poverty, child labor, safety traveling to schools, lack of female teachers and poor physical structures of school buildings also negatively affect the education of girls in Afghanistan, as Alhadeff pointed out.
Combatting the Threats to Education
Fortunately, organizations like Sahar are working to improve the state of girls’ education in Afghanistan. Alhadeff stated that “there are many elements to provide safer learning environments for girls in Afghanistan ranging from keeping them in schools, teaching in secure structures, providing employment opportunities to job training, to building gender allies with men in the community.”
Sahar has several programs aimed at combating the threats brought on by the destabilization of the region by the Taliban, as well as the socio-economic factors that hinder the education of girls in Afghanistan. Founded in 2001, the organization has since built 13 schools and educated more than 250,000 girls in the country.
With President Biden wanting to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in September, Sahar’s work is crucial in the process of navigating the enormous challenges up ahead with regards to combating struggles such as war, grief, displacement and intergenerational trauma. Shepherding change against these threats to education, Sahar has launched initiatives like the Early Marriage Prevention Program, teachers’ training, Men as Partners in Change and a partnership with Sultan Razia Girls Boarding School.
The Positive Impacts
Work done by Sahar through its programs has brought about positive change in the lives of girls they have impacted. These threats can only be mitigated and eventually eradicated through the tireless efforts of like-minded individuals working toward building a safer society.
Because of these positive changes, Zulika now wishes to return to her village and build a girls’ school. She hopes to become a writer so that she can share the bravery and resilience of Afghan women. Maria now wants to become a lawyer to defend the rights of girls, inspire other young women and prove to her relatives that she is as capable as any boy. With one positive impact at a time, just like with Zulikha and Maria, girls’ education in Afghanistan can see a better future.
– Iris Anne Lobo