With more than 65% of its inhabitants under 25 years old, Afghanistan has one of the world’s youngest populations. According to the Afghan government, women outnumber men. However, despite being the majority, they have been marginalized, excluded from getting proper educations, and have been denied freedom of expression.
Afghanistan also has the highest illiteracy rate in the world, especially among women. While religion and ancient traditions still play major roles in sustaining social restrictions against women in Afghanistan, lack of security, legal statutes, and poverty have also profoundly contributed to the lack of attention to girls’ education. A United Nation’s report in 2012 said “nearly 4.2 million Afghan children have never attended a school, of which 60% are girls.”
According to the U.N report most of the children that are deprived of an education live in the country’s volatile eastern and southern regions, which are mostly controlled by the Taliban. In its annual report, the U.N voiced concern over the dramatic increase in the number of attacks against school buildings, teachers, and students in Afghanistan.
Last year, UNICEF reported a dramatic increase in the number of suicide attacks against schools. According to the report, at least 70 attacks against school buildings and staff were recorded in 2012, while a year earlier, the number was around 28.
The Afghan government confirms the report, and as the country’s Education Minister, Farook Wardak, said, "Most attacks were targeted at girls’ schools that we had built with the help of our international partners in the last one decade or so."
During the a ceremony at a secondary school adjacent to the Presidential Palace, Wardak stated that of the 412 districts across the country, in 200 there were no girls’ schools functioning at all, mainly for fear of Taliban attack or because in many rural areas girls have traditionally not been educated.
The Afghan government states that ongoing militancy in the country is the prime reason that hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls are deprived of a decent education. Many, such as Kareema, have never been to school.
She lives in a little village in the Goshta district of Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan, along with her mother and three siblings. Her father was killed in road-side bomb explosion two years ago.
Since then, the 12-year-old has a lot of work to do at home to support her mother. She helps with cleaning, looking after her younger siblings and the family’s two maroon roosters and flock of hens.
Kareema is joyful and constantly talks about her tasks around the house, but as for school, “There isn’t any in our village," she smiles.
Her mother told me, “Two years ago, Taliban gunmen attacked the only school in the village in day light and warned teachers against any attempt to run the school," leaving them with no choice but to walk cross the country’s unauthorized border with Pakistan, to attend an unofficial school that mostly taught religion and the Quran.
The commute takes at least two hours, and girls are not welcome there, because the Taliban constantly warn locals against running schools or sending their daughters to schools. In 2011, the bullet- ridden body of a teacher at Kareema’s village was found near his home after he ignored several warnings to stop attempts at re-opening the school.
“The incident shocked everyone,” says Kareema’s mother, who never went to school herself. “It is better to stay home, than be killed at school or kidnapped either by the Taliban or other fanatics. They don’t like girls that go to schools,” she said.
Abandoned and mountainous, the village does not have a hospital or a road to the provincial capital, and its inhabitants mostly use animals as their means of transportation. The Taliban have been using the area’s harsh environment, high mountains, and thick jungles as a safe haven since the U.S-led coalition forces launched its war against terror in 2001.
According to Kareema’s mother “The Taliban could easily attack any one at any time. Walking for hours on hot summer days in eastern Afghanistan, where the average temperature reaches up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), the intense heat and summer diseases like malaria and cholera can also be fatal. Therefore, she chose her daughter’s safety above education.
Afghanistan’s newly adopted constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women. Opening new schools, especially for girls, has been considered a major sign of change in Afghanistan, since education for women was completely banned during the Taliban regime as un-Islamic.
The country has already seen a significant increase in the number of children attending school, from less than 1 million in 2001 to around 8.3 million today, where according to the Ministry of Education, 39% of girls attend the more than 8,000 school buildings that have been constructed since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
But, many Afghans agree with Palwasha, a teacher at an elementary school in Kabul, saying, "It is the Taliban’s strategy to spread fear among the people and degrade the Afghan government’s reputation by attacking soft targets such as school buildings and students.”
“Almost half of the school-age children in Afghanistan do not have access to education, President Hamid Karzai said on March 21, 2013 as he inaugurated the new school year. “Five million school-age children in our country do not go to school, some because of war, or because their schools have been closed by the Taliban or others, some because they do not have the ability to reach a school,” he said.
Speaking at the same ceremony, Wardak said that 590 school buildings have been bombed or torched by Taliban gunmen and militants in the past year, and they remained closed throughout 2012.
But he insisted on the importance of girls’ education and the Afghan government’s commitment to creating opportunities to get as many children to school as possible. "Things will take time, and we are working on it, day and night." He added that the Afghan government has set a 2020 deadline to provide all children with equal access to quality education.
The Afghan government has constantly been trying to reach out to religious scholars, Imams, and elders to promote girls’ education in villages through mosques, and spread awareness about the importance of girls’ education. President Hamid Karzai, in his speech marking the beginning of the new school year, called upon the Taliban to avoid targeting schools on both sides of the restive Durand line between Afghanistan and Pakistan.“Targeting schools and students is un-Islamic and an inhuman act,” he said.
But despite the Afghan government’s efforts, supported by the International community, the reality for many Afghan families has not changed over the years. Kareema finds solace in the company of her friends, and no one knows if she will ever go to school. Gushta district, which lays on the Durand line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has experienced brief cross-border armed conflicts, followed by a series of anti-Pakistani rallies after Pakistan shut the crossing point with Afghanistan.
There has been no report of the Pakistani government’s willingness to re-open the border with Gushta.