GLASGOW, Scotland — Afghanistan has endured numerous changes and challenges in recent years, with particularly tumultuous effects on the rights and opportunities of Afghan girls. While patriarchal customs historically limited girls’ freedoms and access to education, the country saw significant strides in women’s rights during the 2001-2021 U.S.-led intervention. However, the withdrawal of international troops and subsequent Taliban takeover in 2021 sparked fears of a reversal in the progress achieved over the previous two decades. The Borgen Project spoke to some of those closest to the situation to learn how, despite adversity, girls in Afghanistan continue to persevere and strive for a better future.
Overcoming Historical Barriers
During the intervention, increasing Afghan girls’ access to education became a local and international priority. According to UNESCO, though almost no Afghan girls were attending primary school in 2001, some 2.5 million would be by 2018, accounting for 40% of primary school enrollments. Embracing education as a tool for empowerment, girls in Afghanistan saw it as a way to build change.
Yet, the situation took a stark turn with the 2021 regime shift, raising serious concerns about Afghan girls’ and women’s rights, freedoms and safety. With the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule marked by severe women’s rights abuses, many feared that history would repeat itself. While the U.N. has reiterated the validity of these concerns, first hand accounts also make clear that girls in Afghanistan have not lost hope.
Voices of Despair and Hope
“Zarah,” a 23-year-old woman who has requested to use a pseudonym, was living in Kabul and studying at university when the Taliban seized power in August 2021. “At the beginning, I couldn’t do anything, I just wanted to cry,” she recalled. Millions of Afghan women and girls shared similar feelings as they held their breaths waiting for news of new restrictions to their basic human rights.
In September 2021, the Taliban banned girls from secondary school, denying 1.1 million girls the right to education. As of April 2023, 2.5 million school-aged Afghan females remained out of school. Other restrictions have included banning women from universities, parks, gyms and public baths and excluding women from judiciary and public offices.
Yet, despite such barriers, underground schools, secret classes and home-based learning have emerged across the country, including in regions of strong Taliban influence. Zarah explained that there are centers that educate women for free, while many younger girls use the internet to continue learning at home. There are also organizations that provide teaching materials to facilitate home- and community-based education. “Sometimes the girls are taught by their brothers who are allowed to go to school,” Zarah said. “This is not enough, but at least we can do our best.”
While acknowledging the extreme barriers that girls in Afghanistan face, Zarah remains hopeful and resilient. After graduating from Kabul University’s Math Faculty, she now teaches math in a private school. Believing that the “dark days” will end and Afghanistan will one day be free, she strives to inspire her students to continue learning so that they can become part of that change.
Faith in Education
Basir Arian, co-founder of Candles of Hope for Afghanistan, similarly emphasized the power of education. His free online school helps Afghan girls and women learn English from qualified teachers around the world. As of March 2022, it had reached some 500 students. An Afghan refugee living in Iran, Arian stressed the importance of remaining committed to women’s education in Afghanistan, stating, “since women constitute half of our society, the development of our country has a direct relationship with the education and growth of girls and women.” Arian therefore believes that the international community must “hold the Taliban accountable for human rights, particularly women’s rights, using diplomatic tools.”
Indeed, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists and international organizations and donors are rallying to support Afghan girls and women. Led largely by Afghan women on the ground, these efforts have included building female support networks, creating safe ways for girls to continue learning outside of school, developing digital learning tools and campaigning for international funding to support women’s rights initiatives.
One major contributor to these efforts is the Malala Fund, which, since 2017, has invested nearly $1.9 million to help local organizations provide Afghan girls with “access to free, safe, quality education.” With girls’ schools still closed, the Malala Fund has been backing efforts to implement alternative learning programs for girls. The fund also supports global advocacy efforts aimed at pressuring the Taliban to reopen schools. Its contributions have been critical for local NGOs and community groups working to advance women’s and girls’ rights, ensure their safety and empower them to assert their value to society.
Simultaneously, the international community is stepping up to provide Afghan girls with safe havens abroad. For instance, Iran welcomed Afghan girls to study at Iranian universities, and Rwanda, with the support of the International Organization for Migration, hosted the relocation of an Afghan girls’ boarding school. Such diplomatic acts are helping Afghan girls complete valuable secondary- and tertiary-level education that will shape their futures.
A Vision for the Future
While the challenges they face are far from over, girls in Afghanistan are living proof of the power of resilience. Now more than ever, the international community must support them as beacons of hope for progress, empowerment and lasting change.
– Eva Cairns O’Donovan