Access To Education and Literacy Are Fundamental To the Protection of Afghan Women’s Rights

Access To Education and Literacy Are Fundamental To the Protection of Afghan Women’s Rights
The total number of girls enrolled in schools across Afghanistan has gone from only 9,000 in 1999, to more than 2.4 million girls today. This fragile success story is now under threat. (United Nations Photo / Flickr)

This post was provided by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

Last week, officials in Badakhshan, a northeastern province in Afghanistan, reported hundreds of young girls on the cusp of entering higher education were prevented from sitting their university entrance exams—threatened by the Taliban with fines if they were to do so.

The Afghan “peace” process is intensifying, with talks soon to begin between the government and Taliban. But advances in women’s rights over the last decades, including the opportunities created by increased literacy and access to education, are at risk of betrayal by a rushed negotiation designed exclusively to advance U.S. strategic interests—with neither the Afghan government nor civil society and women’s rights groups having been meaningfully involved.

For decades, Afghan women have fought, in sometimes unimaginably hostile conditions, to have their basic human rights recognized, putting themselves at grave personal risk in the process.

Now, the agency of these same Afghan women is being robbed not only by forces in their own country—but by the same Western interests that have claimed to champion their rights.

Belquis Roshan and Other Women Activists Speak Out

Earlier this month, a loya jirga, the traditional Afghan assembly, was held to discuss the peace process and Taliban prisoner release.

During the assembly, Belquis Roshan, a female MP, voiced her opposition to the release of Taliban prisoners by holding a banner equating the move to treason, at which point she was beaten by a fellow member of the assembly.

No interventions were made at the time, and subsequent calls for an apology for this violation against Roshan faced resistance within the loya jirga itself, and women were verbally attacked with derogatory terms—all of which was televised. 

With this resistance to the exercise of women’s right to voice their stance on the peace process, in an official setting surrounded by security forces, the risk to women activists who speak out beyond the confines of the formal political process is real and increasing. Such incidents have highlighted the weakness of the Afghan government in its ability to protect its own citizens.

Indeed, these fears were confirmed the following weekend when Fawzia Koofi, one of the female members of the negotiating team, was shot, sustaining minor injuries.  

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The acceleration of this process, without accountability for the Taliban, is putting the rights and safety of Afghan citizens in jeopardy. With the planned release of some 400 remaining Taliban prisoners, perpetrators of some of the most violent attacks in recent Afghan history, many are concerned for the continued safety of the people of Afghanistan. This prisoner release was part of a U.S. brokered agreement reached with the Taliban in February of this year, and while the Afghan government was not consulted, they are now being pressed to comply with the deal—despite pleas from the international community not to release dangerous terrorists. 

With pressure coming from the U.S. administration as a power broker in these negotiations, we are particularly concerned for the safety and security of women in Afghanistan. Not only are women not being meaningfully included in the talks about to commence; they are being actively and in some cases violently silenced—putting at risk the significant advances made in women’s rights in recent years. 

Access To Education and Literacy Are Fundamental To the Protection of Afghan Women’s Rights
The Taliban have been steadily eroding gains made in access to education for women and girls, even since their overthrow. Pictured: International Women’s Day in Afghanistan, 2017. (UN Women / Flickr)

Despite this, Afghan women have proven their resilience and determination throughout the past decades, and will not succumb to these threats. Women’s voices and activism have been essential to the expanding practice of democratic process and to securing constitutionally protected human rights in Afghanistan. They will continue to be a force for change within the country.

But this will be achieved sooner with their meaningful participation not only in the peace process itself, but also in mechanisms established to safeguard the protection of their rights post-peace talks. Of particular concern for those of us who are working to improve access to education as a fundamental human right, is the fact that the Taliban has refused to clarify their position with regards to the education of girls. 

Taliban Eroding Gains Previously Made for Women and Girls

In fact, in areas under their control, the Taliban have been steadily eroding gains made in access to education for women and girls even since their overthrow.

In Logar province, just an hour from Kabul, Taliban rule has restricted the number of years girls can study, or in some cases barred them from entering school altogether. Last year in Farah province, after educators complied with a sudden Taliban order that male teachers could not work in girls’ schools, the same institutions were nonetheless set ablaze, leaving 1,700 girls without classrooms. These instances are a few among many.

Access to education and advances in female literacy have played a pivotal role in women taking up their rightful places as equal citizens contributing to the sustainable and peaceful development of Afghanistan. Progress in this area over the last two decades has been immense: The total number of girls enrolled in schools across the country has gone from only 9,000 in 1999, to more than 2.4 million girls today.

This fragile success story is now under threat, as the Taliban remains vague in its official position on access to education for women and girls. In practice, opportunities for schooling in Taliban controlled area have been inconsistent at best, and the future right to education is a cause for concern among many citizens.

As the peace process intensifies, we urge that this cause must be a concern in the international community as well, and among all those who value human rights.

If this peace process is to work, it is time for the Taliban to understand that Afghanistan and its people have moved forward into a new era; that women refuse to go backward or lose their hard won rights. It is time for the international community to stand firm and consistent in supporting this message. 

In particular, the U.S., as the major power brokering these developments, must commit to its stated motives of protecting the rights and freedoms of women of Afghanistan for which its own armed forces made great sacrifice. There must be measurable assurances that alongside a cessation of violence towards civilians, the Taliban guarantees the protection of women’s rights. Do not now betray the women of Afghanistan by bartering ther hard fought rights.

We expect nothing less than the full participation of women, youth and civil society actors, representing the diversity of the Afghan population in the peace process and beyond, for women and girls to empower themselves through access to education, and total protection of their right to exercise their political will and personal freedoms.

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