Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani youth activist who was shot by the Pakistani Taliban barely two years ago, has become a global symbol for girls’ education. Not only was the now 17-year-old the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, but she regularly champions the cause in Pakistan and around the world.
In neighboring Afghanistan, however, a country where girls’ education had seen rapid growth since the fall of the Taliban, there is concern these gains could be reversed as the United States and other countries withdraw their military forces.
“The Taliban are... something we are scared of and something we have to worry about,” said Razia Jan, founder of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation, a Kabul-based non-governmental organization that provides education to 400 girls.
In many ways, girls’ education has come full circle in Afghanistan, civil society organizations believe. It was almost non-existent during the years of Taliban rule, but grew rapidly after U.S. troops entered the country. Now, with the drawdown of U.S. and other forces, there is fear that girls’ education could once again suffer.
Many civil society organizations and foreign policy experts believe there could be an impact from a resurgence of the Afghan Taliban and from a sudden decrease in funding for Afghan schools and NGOs.
Growth of education
Today, there are eight million Afghan children enrolled in schools; 2.5 million of them are girls, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
That, according to experts, is huge progress from when the Taliban ruled when the number of girls in schools was practically zero.
“Under the Taliban there was little money and little investment in education, but there [were] also highly prohibitive and restrictive rules and regulations, mainly, most women, most girls could not attend schools,” said Ashley Jackson, research associate at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank.
In an effort to provide the most basic education to girls, underground schools were started. These schools were set up in homes, usually with no more than a few dozen students.
Hassina Sherjan, founder of Aid Afghanistan for Education (AAE), a NGO which provides education for girls excluded from the education system, such as those married at a young age, recounted how she went to Afghanistan in 1999 and saw teachers begging on the streets.
With just $3,000 in hand, Sherjan set up a handful of classrooms in homes with 25 students in each.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, education has become a priority, educators believe. One indicator has been the $885 million spent between 2002 and 2012 by USAID on education in Afghanistan, which among other things, had led to the building or refurbishment of 605 schools.
“Since the defeat of the Taliban, the very first thing that happened was the doors of the schools were opened again for the girls to come back to school,” Sherjan said.
Maiwand Rahyab, deputy director of the Afghanistan office for Counterpart International, a Virginia-based NGO, said the growth of education came down to the increased role of local NGOs, international funding, and the Afghan government’s support.
But with the drawdown of foreign troops, these same educators are concerned about the future of girls’ education in the country.
Threats from drawdown
In May, President Barack Obama announced that by the end of 2014 there would be no more than 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This set timetable, analysts believe, could prove to be a serious threat to girls’ education in the country, given the power the Taliban continues to wield and the group’s intransigence.
“I think the Taliban is not going to talk. It does not want peace negotiations. I think it is going to intensify its fight,” said Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
A recent New York Times article highlighted the Taliban resurgence in northern Afghanistan and the reality that the government was losing its grip in the region.
Ashley Jackson, from the Overseas Development Institute, said that despite concerns about the Taliban’s view towards girls’ education, there were instances of NGOs having been able to negotiate with the Taliban to keep schools open.
“Two, three years ago you could talk about unified Taliban policies... but now they are much more fragmented and almost fractured, so sometimes it’s a new commander deciding in one district,” Jackson said.
The Taliban has given hints that it may be more open to the idea of girls’ education.
“Our policy will hold the education of women to be of equal importance to the education of men,” said an Afghan Taliban spokesperson during an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in 2013.
Many Afghans, though, still remain skeptical.
“Why would they do anything different from what they have already?” Sherjan asked. “I don’t think we should really fool ourselves thinking the Taliban have changed.”
“Girls access to education is already being profoundly eroded in contested areas and where Taliban influence is strongest,” Jackson added.
An additional problem the drawdown of troops is likely to bring is a decrease in funding. There is a fear among Afghan educators that the drawdown could decrease the importance of Afghanistan in the eyes of international donors, much like after the U.S. disengagement from the region after Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989.
A sign of this, Sherjan said, was that USAID funding for her schools had suddenly ended in 2013, which meant that more than 200 teachers worked for the year without any salaries.
As foreign troops leave the country, there is a feeling in Afghanistan that in order for girls’ education to continue to grow, it is Afghans, not international donors or organizations, that must take the lead.
“My hope is that Afghan people will step in. We have plenty of millionaires and billionaires in Afghanistan … We hope Afghans will take responsibility,” Sherjan said.
What is important and could ultimately decide the fate of girls’ education is whether local villages accept it, said Rahyab.
If Afghans on a local level were to accept the benefits and importance of girls’ education, Rahyab said, then “irrespective of the political situation,” girls’ education would not face the threat it is confronted with today.