Afghanistan has been in a vicious war for four decades, claiming over 250,000 lives in the past two decades alone. The ongoing armed conflict has cost massive amounts of aid money and impacted all aspects of Afghan life. After years of efforts by the Afghan people and their international allies, the main insurgent group, the Taliban, has agreed to engage in peace negotiations. This paper discusses how the war in Afghanistan has impacted the education sector—particularly girls’ education—and whether a potential peace deal between the government and the Taliban will have the capacity to expand educational opportunities for young Afghans.
Opportunities and Challenges of the Education Sector
Afghanistan’s education sector has achieved significant growth in recent years.
- Between 2001 and 2015, enrollment rates at high schools increased exponentially from less than 1 million and almost no girls to 8 million students with approximately 30% girls.
- By 2019, the number of students enrolled at high schools increased to over 9 million, more than 3.5 million of which were girls.
- Currently 300,000 students are enrolled at public and private universities across Afghanistan; of which one third are women.
Despite this rise in enrollment, the education sector still faces major security threats, especially for its girl students. In remote parts of Afghanistan, schools are subject to Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan control. [Also known as ISIS-K, ISIS-Khorasan is the branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria devoted to conducting terrorism in Afghanistan and the region surrounding it.] Reports find that the Taliban and its supporters have bombed, set fire, or closed over 100 schools—mostly girls' schools.
Security is not the only challenge facing Afghanistan’s education sector. Schools in Afghanistan confront several infrastructure issues such as natural disasters, lack of transportation for students, and inadequate school sanitary facilities. While some families in rural Afghanistan believe that education is not necessary for girls, this belief is only reinforced by the lack of female teachers in the country. And, although public schools are free of charge, families may not have the levels of income needed to afford uniforms or books. Less fortunate families may be forced by dire economic needs to send their children into street peddling instead of school.
Peace and Education
Over the past several years, the Afghan government, the United States, and key international partners have made enormous efforts to make peace between the Taliban insurgency and the Afghan government. The United States and Taliban signed a conditional peace agreement on February 29, 2020 that obliges the Taliban to enter intra-Afghan peace negotiations to end the war. The Afghan government, in turn, has put together a team of negotiators who are determined to strike a political peace deal with the Taliban. While there is reason for hope, there is a great deal of uncertainty around education in a post-peace deal Afghanistan.
Historically, the Taliban has opposed the education of girls and only offered classes in religious studies. Recent reports, like one published by Center on International Cooperation (CIC), have indicated that the Taliban may have changed its stance on the education of girls over time. This report claims that the Taliban may allow communities to operate a school if the Taliban has control over school curriculum, funding, and hiring of teachers and staff. Though this is a change, it does not provide the assurance that the Taliban will address the education needs in Afghanistan in a way that can build upon the efforts of the past 19 years.
Reports also indicate that in Taliban-controlled areas, boys may pursue high school, while girls are only allowed to attend elementary school. The Obeh district of Herat became an exception when elders in this area demanded that the Taliban let their girls go to high school. The Taliban agreed, as long as the girls had female-only teachers. This Taliban practice is deceitful, however, for if more Afghan girls do not complete high school and pursue higher education, there will be no female teachers to teach younger girls. A 2018 report by Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) also states that the Taliban has created schools with such small spaces that, even if girls could study with male teachers, their families would not permit them to go.
Many of the Taliban’s policies regarding education have been inconsistent and dangerous. The Taliban declared in May 2015 statement in Qatar that youth could have access to modern education apart from religious studies. Nevertheless, in April 2016, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that the Taliban continued to attack schools and deprived more than 139,000 students from education in 2015. The Taliban has also been known to misuse educational centers, propagating violent ideologies and recruiting fighters for their illegitimate war in the Nad Ali district. This is a violation of international humanitarian law.
Conclusion and Recommendations
There are both opportunities and challenges to improving education in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the Taliban does not have a promising reputation in favor of education. On the other hand, the government and people of Afghanistan have made some significant gains in education, where they may look for continued progress. The international community, which has poured billions of dollars into the sector, is also invested in advancing education in Afghanistan. In the event of a peace deal, Afghans can build upon their achievements and increase girls’ access to education throughout the cities and remote villages of Afghanistan if this progress isn't blocked by the Taliban. .
The Afghan government’s negotiations team should pay special attention to the fears and demands of its people in ensuring quality education for its children. Additionally, the international community should make support of the Taliban’s political inclusion conditional upon the Taliban’s respect of human rights and the right to education for all Afghan people.
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