The dangers of teaching girls in Afghanistan
* Janet Swinney
For Jamila Niyazi, simply going to her office is a death-defying act. Jamila is principal of Lashkar Gah girls high school in Helmand province Afghanistan, and oversees the education of 7,000 pupils. She has already received the dreaded “night letters” which threaten her with death. These have been followed by disturbing phone calls.
In Afghanistan, threats to teachers and students are not to be taken lightly. The country’s education ministry calculates that in the year ended March 2008, nearly 150 students and teachers were killed, and around 100 schools burned down. The situation is most perilous in southern and eastern areas, where the Taliban are resurgent. But just last year, gunmen riding a motorcycle fired on girls outside a school in Kabul, killing two and injuring six.
According to the United Nations, the country now has a record 5.7 million children in education, but only 35% of these are girls and the figure is not increasing. An estimated 1.2 million girls are missing out on schooling. In some provinces, girls’ enrolment may be as low as 1%. A third of state schools are reserved for boys, and there are not enough female teachers. In a country where the literacy rate for women aged 15–24 years is only 14%, compared with a rate of 51% for men in the same age group, this is a desperate situation.
“Educating a girl changes her destiny, as well as those of her future children,” says Ann Cotton, executive director of Camfed, “and it ensures that she that she can contribute to the economic life of her community.” Better educated women have healthier children, stand a better chance of surviving childbirth and can earn money for themselves and their families. In 2004 the World Bank found that a one-year increase in the schooling attainment of all adult females in a country is associated with an increase in GDP per capita of around US$700 per annum. It also found that education enables women to develop the skills and the confidence to become active in their communities and to participate in the political process.
All of this is a far cry from the reality of Afghan women. Most are not allowed to work outside the home. Traditionally, girls are married off in their early teens, and many die in childbirth. The infant mortality rate in 2006, though improving, was 135 per 1,000, which is the third worst in the world. An estimated 1,600 women die per 100,000 live births. In some parts of the country the rate is as high as 6,500 (whereas the average rate for other developing countries is 450 and, for developed, countries nine). The current food crisis is encouraging families to marry off their daughters as quickly as possible in exchange for a dowry. In May, a BBC reporter uncovered a case of a girl giving birth at the age of 10.
In many developing countries, poverty is the obstacle to girls’ participation in education. But many governments are working hard towards millennium targets by alleviating this barrier. They calculate that learning will pay dividends in the longer-term. For example, with the support of Unicef and the World Bank, many African nations are part of an initiative to engage the poor in learning by abolishing school fees, and are busy working through the resourcing and curriculum issues this raises. All kinds of imaginative approaches are being developed to place education within the reach of the poorest children, especially girls. The Indian government has undertaken to pay the costs for the first girl child in every poor family to attend primary school. Haryana state government provides free bicycles for girls who do not have a school within their own village. The ‘rider’ is that each girl must appear for the class VIII examination before she owns the bike in full. Village panchayats (councils) are offered financial incentives to achieve 100% female enrolment in school.
In Afghanistan however, girls face deeply entrenched cultural barriers to their participation in education, and a poor understanding of their human rights. International agencies have found that gender-based violence is endemic throughout society. Where adults are supportive of girls’ education they have fears for their safety if they venture outdoors.
Aid agencies continue their efforts to create safe environments in which girls and women can study, but the Taliban, now flexing their muscles again in large areas of the country, make it clear that anyone deemed to be colluding with “the infidel”, can expect the worst. “Collusion” in this case means being in receipt of income or support from a Western-backed government department or NGO, or benefiting from any of their services. This makes constructive help very difficult. How can the global community help girls and women who find themselves trapped inside this punitive situation? This is a question we have barely begun to ask, let alone to answer.
Ironically, women hold 25% of the seats in the country’s parliament – one of the highest percentages worldwide – guaranteed under the 2004 constitution. In the circumstances, it is hard to see how, beyond the short-term, women with appropriate knowledge and skills can arise from a female population with so few opportunities for learning.
The Karzai government is steadily losing its credibility with the population, and charges of corruption on a large scale abound, placing the Taliban, once again in a strong position. As Western military and economic resources are stretched, in diplomatic circles the talk is of negotiations with the opposition.
What form could such negotiations possibly take, and where will the rights of women and girls feature? The challenge is to help men of a fundamentalist Islamic persuasion see that the rights of women and girls are inextricably bound up with their own, and with the well-being of the nation as a whole. Otherwise, any millennium target will be a fond imagining. Does the West have negotiators with the necessary skills and insight for this task, and will any negotiating team actually include them?