From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 2014/2015 NO. 1
Access to Education for Girls in the Rural Regions of Afghanistan Following the Fall of the Taliban
IN THIS ARTICLE
At present, ‘more than 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate’.1 However, in the rural regions of Afghanistan, where more than 74 percent of the population lives, the illiteracy rate of females is closer to 93 percent.2 Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 1919, ‘successive Afghan governments have used women or the idea of women, as pawns for political legitimization.’3 This manipulation resulted in significantly divergent swings in attitudes towards the presence of Afghan women and girls in public life. This report will focus specifically on challenges faced by women residing in rural regions of Afghanistan gaining access to education following the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Particular emphasis will be placed upon the roles of community and national Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as well as female parliamentarians and government officials in drawing attention to the need for gender equality when discussing the right to education.
Prior to the Taliban gaining power in 1996, Afghan women enjoyed relative freedom concerning education and employment. Under President Muhammad Khan, from 1959 onwards ‘increasing numbers of women were educated in government schools and universities.’4 Estimates show that in the early 1990’s, approximately ‘50% of government workers and university students’ were women.5 After the Taliban seized power, the Taliban leaders argued ‘that the education of women is un-Islamic’ and consequently tried to deny women in Afghanistan access to education.6 Afghanistan’s 1964 Constitution stated that education for both sexes was compulsory, yet in rural Afghanistan ‘the realities of poverty, underdevelopment, and patriarchal attitudes limited girls’ access to school.’7 Due to this, many females experienced little change regarding access to education and as such the Taliban cannot be held uniquely responsible for the limited number of girls receiving an education in rural Afghanistan. Furthermore, not all girls were denied an education under Taliban rule. A minority of females received a basic education due to the underground schools set up in the homes of women who possessed knowledge of subjects such as English, Arabic and Biology.8 It is difficult to get exact data on the number of underground schools in existence during Taliban reign due to fears of reprisal attacks on communities.
This report will firstly assess the current situation faced by many women throughout Afghanistan, before discussion the main issues which continue to prevent the majority of women from gaining an education. Three nation-wide initiatives will then be assessed to examine to what extent, if at all, they are impacting on the educational opportunities available to women in Afghanistan.
Following the Taliban’s fall, significant political barriers which had previously blocked female access to education were eliminated. This encouraged an increasing number of female students to enrol at educational facilities. ‘As of September 2011, there were 2.7 million Afghan girls enrolled in school, compared to just 5,000 in 2001 – a 480-fold increase.’9 However, as the educational system is still developing, it is important not to overstate the optimistic statistical facts; it is still uncertain whether the positive trend will continue. This is highlighted by the issues faced by girls residing in rural areas as they attempt to get to school facilities. Currently they remain ‘stymied at almost every turn by vicious militant attacks, a lack of adequate facilities and teachers, and even their own parents' reluctance to break from the tradition that says “girls belong at home.”’10
In the 2011 Oxfam Report, more than a quarter of persons interviewed ‘named the lack of a female teacher as a major obstacle to girls’ access to education’11 In fact, ‘out of 364 districts in Afghanistan, there are no female teachers in more than 200 districts’12 and those lacking female teachers overwhelmingly are rural regions. Furthermore, Ministry of Education data highlights the gap between ‘enrollment and actual attendance, suggesting that far fewer than the 2.4 million girls enrolled in school regularly attend classes.’13 This could be considered a direct result of numerous obstacles blocking access to education for rural Afghan girls, including poverty, early marriage and lack of family support14. Until such time as the highlighted matters are fully confronted and a concerted effort is made to address them, the Afghan female population will continue to be denied the benefits of education.
Key Issues Preventing Rural Females Gaining an Education
‘In Afghanistan, oppression of women is rampant and justified through tradition, religion, chivalrous protection of women, and defense of personal and family honor’.15 While some girls may enrol at the start of the school year, it is not guaranteed they will continue to attend regularly throughout the term. This is partly because of pressures from the extended family and community for girls to perform their ‘traditional female roles’ in households. Many families are reticent to see female relatives break the recently established norm of girls existing almost entirely in private households and hidden from society. Of those questioned in the 2011 Oxfam report, 31.8% specified lack of support as an obstacle to female education.16 Often, the girls are not supported in their attempts to achieve an education due to society’s enduring perception of the women’s subordinate role in society and lack of recognition that girls deserve an education.17 Families also succumb to pressure from within communities, fearing if their daughter ‘does not conform to the traditional ideal of the secluded female and attends school in the public sphere, who will marry her?’18 This is specifically a problem for those in rural areas of Afghanistan, as previously, urban communities were accustomed to both genders co-existing in society.
Females are also prevented from becoming educated due to familial fears for their safety because of continuing instability throughout Afghanistan as well as the threat of attacks by the Taliban on educational facilities. Between ‘2007 and 2009, the Taliban and its allies have bombed, burned, or shut down more than 640 schools in Afghanistan, 80% of which were schools for girls.’19 Furthermore, adequate learning facilities simply do not exist in rural Afghanistan. Many lack access to educational facilities that have suitable sanitation amenities, school books, desks and chairs. As a result, national NGO’s such as RAWA have established non-formal educational systems in rural Afghanistan, so girls can be taught basic numeracy and literacy skills necessary to help secure basic-wage jobs. As Kirk and Winthrop state, home-based schooling can be held ‘in a room in a home, space in a mosque, or the shade of a tree.’20 By focusing efforts on basic education, NGOs are attempting to bring changes to the majority of girls in Afghanistan. However, a direct impact is that less emphasis is placed on further education. This means students wanting to continue onto further education, or to gain a structured formal education, miss such opportunities due to the emphasis on basic mass-education.
Local Initiatives to Change the Status Quo Throughout Afghanistan
Throughout Afghanistan, women are raising awareness on the importance of education by employing a number of strategies. One initiative trying to change the status quo is the rise in the number of prominent female political figures in Afghanistan. One of the most important female figures to date is Dr. Habiba Sarabi, who in 2005 was appointed governor of rural Bamyam Province, becoming the first woman in Afghanistan’s history to hold such a position.21 During her seven years in power, Dr. Sarabi has used her public position to encourage the local community to embrace female education. She has also worked to change the long-held beliefs about the abilities of women. As a consequence, her province boasts the highest percentage of females in education. 45% of the regions 125,000 students are girls.22 While individuals in the province initially opposed the appointment of a female governor, it is almost certainly because of her gender that the education rates for females are the highest in the nation. Furthermore, the appointment in 2005 of Fawzia Koofi as Afghanistan’s deputy speaker in the Afghan parliament ensured that there were an increasing number of political elites in Afghanistan committed to raising national awareness on the benefits of increased female education. Altering the composition of the parliament will help ensure the traditional-minded war-lords that held political power during Taliban rule will be replaced by educated politicians who are more inclined to change the women’s status quo.
Whilst political elites strive to change negative views on female education at a national policy level, there are numerous local and national NGOs in Afghanistan set up by women who approach this issue at grass-roots level. The operations of the NGOs can be split into three distinct strategy areas: lobbying, community outreach programmes and international networking. Firstly, the NGOs campaign to raise awareness not only of the need for education for girls, but also the need for a change in the treatment of females in the public sphere generally. Due to the threat of sexual harassment on their journey to school, many families are reticent to send their daughters to educational facilities.23 In July 2011, Young Women for Change (YWC) held Afghanistan’s first anti-sexual harassment march in Kabul to raise awareness on the need for safety for girls travelling to-and-from their educational facilities.24 By publicly breaking from their prescribed societal roles as passive and socially-inactive, NGOs such as YWC are highlighting the need for changing attitudes towards females in public and the need for acceptance of women’s ‘new’ rights in society. Furthermore, YWC had numerous male supporters marching with them, which will help to challenge the widely-held male view that women should not participate in society alongside men. Although not directly linked to educational-focused NGOs, organizations such as YWC will help build wider societal support for groups that are focused on providing education for women.
Secondly, NGOs in Afghanistan are using community-outreach programmes, where organisations establish, fund and run educational facilities to raise female education standards. One grass-roots organisation set up specifically to focus on female rights is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA was established in 1977 to help ‘Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women's rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan.’25 As some rural regions still reject the notion of females acquiring an education, RAWA have successfully set up and run numerous schools, in some instances establishing underground schools to provide literacy classes for girls and illiterate women.26 Another grass-roots organization pursuing similar goals is the Afghan Institute of Learning, who have opened educational facilities in eight rural regions of Afghanistan at the request of the local communities. The Afghan Institute of Learning also helps to cover the costs of basic materials needed for the children to receive a basic quality education, such as chairs, blackboards and books.27 This helps address the issue of poor quality of education holding some families back from enrolling their children.
Finally, while it is not the priority of many grass-roots organisations in Afghanistan, some NGOs have focused on international networking as a means of raising awareness of issues facing girls attempting to gain an education. One organisation attempting to create wider international awareness of the necessity for female education is the Educational Training Center for Poor Women and Girls of Afghanistan (ECW), which is currently a member of the South Asian Alliance for Poverty Eradication. As a direct result of this membership, representatives of ECW travel to international conferences to emphasize the plight of women and their continued lack of educational access in Afghanistan.28 Through a multi-tiered approach, women across Afghanistan continue to highlight and circumvent current obstacles placed in the way of the majority of girls wanting to access a basic level of education and training.
How Successful Have These Projects Been?
Whilst the undertakings mentioned above have been important in changing the current situations facing females wishing to obtain an education, there are limitations and advantages associated with each strategy. While it is vital that NGOs continue to help establish facilities in rural areas (with traditional-minded communities), the majority of NGOs currently focus on educating both genders. This has proved successful in raising the number of educated girls in some cases, but the combination of few female teachers and mixed-sex classrooms ensures that scores of girls do not attend the facilities due to family disapproval of the situation.29
However, education of both genders simultaneously is vital to ensuring that educational reforms are fully supported throughout rural regions. Due to Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, in order to change the females’ cultural position, male members within the community require an education. Educated males are more likely to understand that by gaining an education, a woman is not necessarily going to challenge the male’s established social power, but could raise a community’s living standard through participation in public life. If the males are not willing to accept new gender norms, educational reforms for women will fail. Therefore, although female enrolment has not risen as NGOs anticipated, the significant changes in society may take another few years to filter through and impact on education levels.
One significant issue is that organizations such as the Afghan Institute of Learning only opens facilities at the request of communities, as opposed to targeting communities which may stand to benefit more from the provision of facilities but who cannot openly ask for such necessities. Therefore, a slight change in their strategy of targeting communities in need of facilities should be made. Although identifying communities wishing for education that cannot currently ask for facilities would be challenging, it is an avenue that certain well-established NGOs, such as RAWA, could attempt to pursue. This is in order to ensure that the maximum numbers of girls are included in their educational programs.
The combination of lobbying and the presence of prominent female political figures throughout Afghanistan has proven highly successful in changing community-held views on female education. Due to their public protests, YWC is challenging the gender roles and supposed characteristics of ‘normal’ Afghan girls, boldly marching through the male-dominated public areas. Furthermore, YWC also has male volunteers, ensuring that their gender equality message is distributed as widely as possible throughout Afghan society. While YWC continues to lobby political groups and draws national attention to the need for female education, the female political representatives in rural areas of Afghanistan help to subtly change rural views. Although communication services throughout Afghanistan are poor, gradually communities will see their neighbouring societies changing and benefitting through the female education being provided under a female governor. In combination with increased standards of male education, ensuring there are a number of prominent successful female figures present in the rural areas of Afghanistan will help to encourage families and communities reconsider their notions on a female’s position in society.
The issue of female education in rural Afghanistan has highlighted the importance of multi-tiered approaches when attempting to change public attitudes to the female role in society. It is questionable whether the work of NGOs or female politicians on their own could have produced the change in the number of educated Afghan women and girls that we have to date. By publicly breaking their prescribed gender roles, the politicians and lobbying groups have helped to create a changing social climate, allowing communities to embrace the new roles of females and therefore allow some girls to receive an education. Nonetheless, it is important not to over-enhance the gains made thus far, as gaining an education remains ‘an elusive dream for most girls.’30 In 2007-2008, female adult literacy remained at approximately 12%,31 far below the world average of 79.7%. 32 However, to date, educational progress has so far been unequal across Afghanistan. As an increasing number of women continue to benefit from the efforts of the initiatives discussed throughout the report, the situation regarding female education in Afghanistan is, at last, beginning to improve.
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