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GLOBAL | fall 2006

School's Out
Afghan girls are losing the ground they recently gained

Afghan girl
Photo: Norma Gattsek

In March 2002, after the repressive Taliban government was ousted from the country, 1.5 million schoolchildren in Afghanistan went back to school. Girls in wispy white head scarves and black frocks swung their book bags alongside the boys, and the world looked on and cheered. That number grew to 5.1 million children by December 2005, of which 1.5 million were girls.

Today, however, girls’ schools are under attack. The United Nations estimates that every single day a girls’ school in Afghanistan is burned down or a female teacher killed. In four southern provinces, more than 100,000 children are being denied an education because of school closures.

Although the issue of Afghan women’s rights has garnered plenty of international attention, an increasingly powerful insurgency and a corresponding backlash of conservatism have combined to lessen the gains that have been made. And the social and economic indicators for women in the country are still staggeringly low: U.S. charity Save the Children estimates that one in six Afghan women—about 20,000 per year—die during or just after childbirth. The female illiteracy rate is estimated at 80 percent or higher, as compared with about 50 percent for the men. Girls as young as 11 or 12 are still married off to men a few decades older. Further more, a UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) study released in August concludes that, although the practice is illegal, some girls are still forced into marriages in order to settle a family feud or to compensate for a crime.

While the Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that girls’ schools make up about 30 percent of the 9,000 schools around the country, most of those are primary schools, and no one knows how many girls go on to middle or high school. There is little funding for girls’ schools, and a dearth of qualified female teachers. But the biggest problem is the insurgency, which has flared up in the past year and has made girls’ schools a huge target for attack.

In a new report, “Lessons in Terror: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch estimates that in 2005 and the first half of 2006 there were more than 204 attacks on teachers, students and schools, mostly in the south but also in previously secure areas of northern provinces. Threatening “night letters,” warning girls against attending school, are distributed in mosques, schools and along routes taken by students and teachers. “Girls not educated today are the missing teachers, administrators and policymakers of tomorrow,” concludes the Human Rights Watch report.

It is not only the Taliban nowadays that terrorizes the population and poses a threat to women: There are warlords, drug lords and local leaders all vying for power. The drug trade, which now accounts for as much as 50 to 75 percent of the country’s economy, supports these men and their private militias. Says Afghan American Sima Wali, president of the nonprofit Refugee Women in Development someone who was instrumental in making sure there was a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the country, “Now warlords fight on the side of the U.S. during the day, but at night they rape and pillage the population.”

There is still a huge gap between the situation in the urban areas— Kabul, Herat, Mazari-Sharif—and in the countryside. “Anywhere outside of the metro areas, things haven’t changed much,” says Malaly Volpi, executive director of the U.S.-Afghanistan Reconstruction Council. “Women’s overall awareness of their rights has improved. But do they have the ability to exercise their rights? For 75 percent of the population, no.”

Higher up in the political chain, the rising tide of conservatism is affecting President Hamid Karzai’s ability to appoint women to his Cabinet or maintain progressive measures in the government. Right after the fall of the Taliban, when Karzai created the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, there were a few very visible Afghan women leaders, but they have faded from view. There is just one woman now in his Cabinet.

Karzai’s core constituency is in the conservative south and east of the country, and he is increasingly aware of them. In July, Karzai’s Cabinet approved a proposal to reestablish the notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Nematullah Shahrani, who received little education under Taliban rule the minister who would oversee the department, assured the public that it would focus on alcohol, drugs, crime and corruption and that it would be nothing like its previous incarnation under the Taliban (when it instituted public beatings of women for such “crimes” as showing their wrists, hands or ankles, or being in public without a close male relative)—but human-rights workers are concerned.

“Afghan women and girls face increasing insecurity, and it’s more important for the government to address how to improve their access to public life rather than limit it further,” says Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

At least women do have some say in the Afghan parliament. Women were guaranteed 25 percent of seats in the lower house and in the provincial councils, which is much higher than in many western countries, including the U.S. Many of the female parliamentarians won by a large number of votes in their own right. But criticism has arisen among women’s-rights advocates that the women members are not displaying collective leadership, nor has the Ministry of Women’s Affairs become an effective advocacy body.

In the absence of effective leadership, the Afghan people have found ways to make small adjustments that they hope will eventually add up to a larger difference. For example, Volpi’s nonprofit group supports a girls’ school in Wardak province, near Kabul, that was burned down last June. The group raised funds to build a new one, but was asked by the provincial council to build a boys’ school instead—only bigger. Now they just hope the Taliban won’t find out that girls are going to go there as well.