Let’s Not Lose the Next Generation: Ensuring the Education of Afghan Girls
By Jessica Bakas
In the year 2022, it is hard to believe that girls are prohibited from having the right to education in any form. Yet, after all the progress the world has made, universal female education is still not universal. The external relations and donor representative of the Taliban just announced the regime's decision to ban Afghan girls from attending school beyond 6th grade. The ban is a reversal from the regime’s promise to ensure the education of girls in their latest takeover of the country. The reversal appears to be the regime giving in to the hardline, rural base of the Taliban, some of whom have even pressed charges against families who provide education to their girls. While the United State’s two-decade intervention in Afghanistan was heavily criticized, it greatly improved the opportunities given to Afghan women and girls. U.S. intervention in Afghanistan lifted girls’ education, with over 3.6 million girls being enrolled in school by 2018 and a 40% participation in secondary education (up from just 6% enrollment in 2003). With the U.S. withdrawal last August, the next generation of Afghanistan is once again in danger of being lost to violence, conflict, and stagnant development. The United States has been an advocate for universal human rights and with the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act it is the U.S.’s responsibility to promote and ensure the role of women “in peace, security, and conflict prevention.” This responsibility obviously begins with women and girls in higher education as education is the foundation of professional opportunity and participation in civil society and the government. This most recent prohibition on girls’ higher education in Afghanistan begs the U.S. to fulfill this responsibility.
While U.S. intervention vitally improved female education, the ban on female education imposed under the Taliban’s first takeover of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 did make a heavy impact on the present state of female literacy in Afghanistan. The decades of instability in the state and the lack of infrastructure have also contributed to the lack of female education.
The figures on the gender gap of education in Afghanistan are astounding. Currently, only 37% of teenage girls can read and write–which is nearly a third less than the literacy rate of Afghan teenage boys. Because higher education is not a ready option for girls in Afghanistan, child marriage has become a huge issue–with official U.S. government data saying that a third of girls are married by the age of 18 and about 9% of girls are married by the age of 15. Other subsequent issues include a lack of female leadership, political representation, economic freedom, and a whole genders-worth loss of ideas and perspective. This most recent ban on girls’ higher education in Afghanistan is just another three steps backward which perpetuates these issues into the next generation.
Countless studies prove that women’s empowerment, education, and participation in civil society, politics, and the economy improve not only the economic development of countries but also have a positive correlation with conflict resolution. In fact, a 2018 World Bank report showed that limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education costs countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime and productivity and earnings. Furthermore, studies with the Council on Foriegn Relations found that within countries, women’s parliamentary representation is associated with a decreased risk of civil war and lower levels of state-perpetrated human rights abuses. Eliminating the education, and as a result the voices and societal contribution, of a whole gender is bound to create a country that does not foster positive change. For losing a whole gender’s perspective leads to ignorant policies and, quite literally, “yes men'' who continue to hammer on the same age-old patriarchal policies. The lack of education of women also naturally translates to the lack of female participation in the economy, which has direct negative effects on economic growth and development since a significant sector of the labor market and source of innovation is missing. This is all in addition to the fact that limiting women and girls’ universal right to get an education is, to put bluntly, completely immoral and grossly sexist.
It is in everyone’s best interest, including in the U.S.’s interest, to promote a more stable, economically developed Afghanistan. A more stable Afghanistan prevents a power vacuum, which can be filled with terrorist organizations and extremist groups. Time has proven that instability and the subsequent power vacuums never end well for the people of the country nor for the U.S.--namely the power vacuums that have been in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. A stable Afghanistan not only consolidates the counterterrorism gains the U.S. and its allies have made in the past two decades, it also makes it easier overall for diplomatic relations to be conducted between the U.S. and Afghanistan.
How should the U.S. go about doing this? First and foremost, the U.S. needs to rally both its own American donors and international community donors in making education funding contingent on the inclusion of full female education in Afghanistan. Currently, about 49% of total education expenditure in Afghanistan comes from solely international donors. International donors are thus vital in the education system of Afghanistan, so putting a contingency on all that funding has the ability to make a real impact. Second, the U.S. should press its own American donors and other international donors to ally with local communities in Afghanistan in their resistance to Taliban’s ban on female secondary and higher education. Most of the Afghan civilians support female education, so there exists the potential for an effective grassroots movement to be supported by international donors. This could look like international donors and aid programs funding students, teachers (especially female teachers), and supplies in those communities. This also includes international donors aiding civil society groups who are advocating for the full access of female education in the country. Third, the U.S. and its allies must make sure to not legitimize the Taliban by recognizing it as a valid regime among the international community. Legitimizing the regime means legitimizing their policies and human rights abuses–it’s ultimately implying that their limit on girls’ universal right to full education is tolerated. The U.S., and the world for that matter, needs to put sustained, tough pressure on the Taliban and expose their human rights abuses.
The world cannot lose another generation of women in Afghanistan to untapped potential and outdated, grossly sexist education policies. We cannot see yet another generation of Afghanistan being wrought with violence, instability, and stagnant development. It is in everyone’s best interest, especially the best interest of the people of Afghanistan, for girls and women to have access to full education.