Compared to the rest of the world, children in Afghanistan are very disadvantaged when it comes to getting an education. The situation is still worse for girls, 85 percent of whom don’t go to school, a new report by Human Rights Watch says.

"By the time we walked to school, the school day would end," 15-year-old Najiba explained why she and her siblings stopped going to school. Najiba is one of the many girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) for their latest study entitled, "I won’t be a doctor, and one day you’ll be sick: Girls’ access to education in Afghanistan."

According to HRW, girls’ education has been highlighted as a success story by donors and the Afghan government. Millions of girls who could not attend school under the Taliban rule can now access education, but the target of getting all girls to school is far from realized. Government statistics say 3.5 million children do not go to school. Eighty five percent of these are girls. Only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, while the figure stands at 66 percent for adolescent boys.

Widespread sexual harassment

One big reason for the divide is that the government provides lesser schools for girls than for boys. Female teachers make up for barely 20 percent in half of the country’s provinces and girls’ families often hesitate sending their wards to school, especially as they become adolescents.

Sexual harassment is also another reason why families prefer keeping girls at home. “Men would disturb and threaten small girls. The men would touch us and do other actions with us, so we left… Lots of girls left school because of this…Kandahar people won’t allow their girls to go to school,” 16-year-old Chehrah told HRW. When she complained about the harassment, her father removed her from school permanently when she was 12.

In another incident, many girls were targets of acid attacks. “It happened on the road right in front of the school… Some students lost their eyes – their faces were burned… All the family decided no girls in our family will go to school,” 17-year- old Maliha said.

Lack of infrastructure

Afghanistan has made it compulsory for children to go to school until they are 14, but many do not manage to make it to that level – if they manage to make it to primary school at all. Lack of buildings and access roads to schools makes parents desist from sending their girls.

Children play along the dirt roads at an informal settlement for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kabul. IDPs and returning refugees often struggle to get their children into school as they try to settle into a new location, often having endured trauma and loss of possessions and livelihood through flight or deportation.  Copyright: Paula Bronstein for Human Rights Watch

 “We have 395 schools without buildings. This is a big challenge for female students because these schools don’t have a perimeter wall – they are open. In these areas, in most districts, people won’t send girls without a building and a perimeter wall,” a provincial official told the rights watchdog.

Poor and destitute families have a harder time sending their children to school. If they can afford it, they prefer sending their boys, while girls stay back at home and embroider and weave or beg and pick garbage to earn money. “We sell fruit for 20 to 30 Afghanis (29 – 43 US dollar cents). The kids here run around the market and eat peels from the ground. All the kids are illiterate…Should they take care of food or education? If your stomach is empty, you can’t go to school,” HRW quoted a community leader in Kabul as saying.

“I don’t have money for a pencil for my son, let alone my daughter,” a social activist recounted a local parent explaining why he didn’t send his daughter to school.

Additionally, Taliban and other insurgent groups have displaced thousands of families. Girls are often banned from education in Taliban-controlled areas. “The Taliban is near our house. If we go to school, they will kill us. If the government can provide security, we will be very interested to go to school,” 12-year-old Paimanah from Kandahar told HRW.

Girls study in a tent held up by a tree in a government school in Kabul, Afghanistan. Forty-one percent of all schools in Afghanistan do not have buildings and even when they do, they are often overcrowded, with some children forced to study outside.  Copyright: Paula Bronstein for Human Rights Watch.

Qasima, another teenager who spoke to HRW, sums up the situation perfectly. “We need peace and we need… equal education for boys and girls. I think boys [now] have more rights to education.”

The way forward

But there are many families struggling to educate their girls despite all odds and they need support, HRW said. The organization spoke to families who moved across Afghanistan to find a school for their daughters. Several also had their sons work illegally in Iran to fund their sisters’ education back home.

According to HRW, donors have worked with the Afghan government to develop models that enable girls to attend school despite unfavourable circumstances. “Community-based education is an example. In this model, classes are held in homes, allowing girls to study even if they live far away from a government institution.

“Integrating these community-based schools in the government education system, with sustainable funding and quality controls, would be a lifeline for many girls,” HRW’s Liesl Gerntholtz said.


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