We The Peoples
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We The Peoples

Why we will continue to press for education for Afghan girls

UNHCR-supported school in Afghanistan provides education lifeline for displaced pupils

For many of us at the UN, these past weeks have been a blur, with our thoughts and work almost exclusively with the Afghan people. Between the many crisis meetings, calls, and latest harrowing bulletins, I’m haunted by a memory from one of my visits to the country.

Several years ago, in a school outside Kabul, I met a group of teenage girls. Internally displaced, they had lost their homes to violence. They had very little, but the excited smiles in that classroom told a different story. The girls were learning, so they had hope. They dreamt of careers and a better future.

Their dreams, along with those of millions of other Afghan girls, could be in serious jeopardy. Amid all the horrific news coming out of the country, it’s still unclear to what extent women will be allowed to attend school or university under the new regime. It’s clear the Taliban’s record is dire.

Women and girls were banned from studying when the Taliban was last in power. During those five lost years, from 1996–2001, a lucky few huddled terrified in underground schools, the rest were deprived of an education. Neither Afghanistan, nor the world, can afford a repeat.

Since the Taliban’s departure, millions more Afghan girls entered school. In 2004, a new constitution laid down the right to free education for all citizens. It has been a hard path, however, with UNICEF saying the country’s literacy rate remains just 19% among girls under 15.

These are hard-won gains, achieved against a backdrop of decades of conflict and abject poverty. But every girl finishing school is a triumph, not just of individual potential, but of wider development. Studies show that with each year of schooling, future wages rise on average by 3.9%.

Meanwhile, separate studies have shown that educating girls has a myriad of positive knock-on effects on wider society, from a reduction in child marriage and teen pregnancy to better child and mother survival rates in childbirth and a less of a risk of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Together with our partners, the UN has supported Afghan girls’ education for decades. We won’t stop now. We will never give up insisting women and girls attend school at all levels, giving them tools to participate in professional life as doctors, lawyers, journalists, and politicians.

Fearing a return to the dark days, many Afghan women are desperate to leave. Only a fraction will succeed, leaving millions at the mercy of the new regime. The Taliban has made statements in recent days pledging to uphold the rights of women to work and of girls to go to school. The world is watching closely. Girls’ access to all levels of education will be taken as a key indicator of the Taliban’s commitment to human rights. And as UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has warned, those and other hard-won women’s rights are “fundamental red lines,” not to be crossed.

We are adamant that women’s and girls’ rights can only go in one direction, forward. And so, as the UN continues to scale up our response to Afghans’ growing needs, I’ll hold up the memory of the blossoming I saw in that classroom. We cannot allow those dreams to be snuffed out.

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