CW4WAfghan Statement on the Announced Reopening of Secondary School for Girls in Afghanistan

March 21, 2022

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan welcomes, with hopefulness, the announcement that schools will reopen to female secondary students on March 23, 2022. After 187 days of being barred from their classrooms, girls over the age of twelve deserve equal access to schools and educational opportunities as a basic first step to realizing their full and equal rights as citizens. However, we remain acutely concerned about ongoing discrimination against women and girls in the education system, and about the conditions and quality of education girls will be subject to under this regime. 

At a time when Afghanistan continues to face widespread humanitarian crisis including the collapse of the economy, millions facing acute hunger, and ongoing instability and violent repression of civil society and women’s rights activism, it must be recognized that reopening schools for women and girls is the beginning of re-establishing equitable access to education, not its achievement. Access to education is about more than opening the doors of school buildings, and while significant and dangerous barriers remain, most imposed or exacerbated by the Taliban, a mere announcement of school reopening does not in itself represent any substantial improvement on the deplorable stance of the regime with respect to the rights of women and girls. We urge the international community to recognize this in its dealings with the Taliban; with this in mind, any engagement with the Taliban regime must be based on clear conditions related to women and girls’ equitable access to quality and inclusive education, and on robust and transparent monitoring of how announced changes are actually being implemented on the ground, across all provinces. Progress on a rights-based approach to education access must be measured through tracking actual access and actual quality of education rather than merely on promises.

There are a number of barriers which must be addressed alongside the opening of classrooms, and which currently severely limit access to education and other basic rights by Afghan girls and women. Firstly, Afghan women and girls must have the human right to free movement within their communities and internationally upheld. As long as women cannot travel locally without a make escort (mahram), and are illegally barred from exiting the country to take up education opportunities abroad without a male guardian, there is no equitable and non-discriminatory access to education.

Further, ongoing violence, fear and insecurity – caused both by Taliban and by other terrorists elements inside Afghanistan –  are a major barrier to education access for girls and women even in provinces where institutions have reopened. If families do not feel safe in allowing their daughters to attend school, then schools will remain empty even as doors have reopened.

This same ongoing conflict has caused a substantial brain drain affecting the education system, with thousands of educated Afghans seeking resettlement abroad. In many institutions, there are no longer lecturers to teach classes even where universities have reopened. Those that have remained do not receive salaries to do their jobs. Any recognized governing authority, and likewise humanitarian and development aid from Western countries, needs to invest in education and support for qualified teachers inside the country.  

Finally, Afghanistan must be provided with a modern education system, that includes the teaching of STEAM subjects and equips all Afghans, regardless of gender, with usable skills and knowledge as a necessary requirement for society to recover from its current devastating economic crisis. Afghans need skills in demand by the labour market in order to address the country’s major healthcare, governance and economic challenges. Yet, the Taliban have announced their intention to change the curriculum and remove “subjects against Islamic laws”  raising concerns that subjects from literature to STEAM fields will be replaced, and the education system will radically politicized as it adopts a version of Islamic education that reflects the Taliban’s Deobandi ideology and its extremist tenets such as radical gender discrimination. As millions more Afghans fell below the poverty line since August, the country cannot afford to sacrifice its education system, further undermine the value of the credentials earned, and fail to develop a workforce ready to address these challenges. While the state of education prior to August 2021 was in need of considerable investment, the immense progress that had been made over the past two decades has effectively been reversed in a matter of months.

Equitable access to quality education for women and girls is a key measure of Taliban attitudes and intentions, but it must happen in the context of wider respect for women’s rights and human rights. The international community must not accept at face value the reopening of schools as fulfilling the conditions of providing girls and and women access to education and respect of their rights, while the Taliban simultaneously violently search homes and detain women activists, journalists and anyone opposed to their extremist values, and while they forbid home-based educational programs and restrict other forms of civil society activity and activism. 

CW4WAfghan calls on the Government of Canada and international allies to monitor and track  access to education, and to make any engagement with the Taliban conditional upon equitable delivery of these promises. As an organization staunchly committed to making the human right to education a reality for all Afghans, regardless of gender, we will continue to work with Afghan women, girls and entire communities to support learning opportunities and rights, as a means for them to overcome the current humanitarian and human rights crisis and to realize their full potential as equal citizens.