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Contested Afghan Provinces See Drastic Drop In Girls’ Education

In parts of Faryab Province, girls are no longer allowed to study past the sixth grade. (file photo)
In parts of Faryab Province, girls are no longer allowed to study past the sixth grade. (file photo)

A leading rights watchdog in Afghanistan has documented a dramatic drop in girls’ education in two provinces where the Taliban controls large swathes of rural territories and is battling government forces for more power.

Nearly two-thirds of school-age girls in the southeastern province of Ghazni and almost half of those in northern Faryab Province are being deprived of a proper education, according to the latest report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Zabiullah Farhang, communications officer for the AIHRC, says conflict is the number one reason girls are not attending school. “The biggest obstacles are clear: war and insecurity," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "Insecurity has created a snowball effect of other countless restrictions on girls seeking a proper education."

In the report, titled Girls’ Access to Education in Ghazni and Faryab Provinces, the AIHRC says fewer girls are attending school in the two provinces and a large percentage of girls are being completely deprived of this basic human right. Issued this month, the report is based on extensive interviews with women, lawmakers, officials, and activists in the two provinces.

In Ghazni, where the AIHRC estimates 69 percent of eligible girls are deprived of an education past the sixth grade, the Taliban controls nine of the province’s 19 districts and contests the others. Out of Ghazni’s 766,000 eligible children, only 360,000 go to school, of whom 118,000 are girls. In Faryab, the hard-line Islamist group controls half of the 14 districts, and 45 percent of girls cannot attend school. A total of 120,674 out of 278,000 Faryab schoolchildren are girls.

The report does not distinguish between government-controlled and Taliban-run territories, but according to local media girls’ access to education has been declining for years as the Taliban has gained control of an increasing number of districts.

The Taliban has already taken measures to limit freedoms and artistic expression in the two provinces, banning music, mobile phones, and fashion deemed "un-Islamic." Moral policing and a ban on women’s education and work were the hallmarks of the Taliban’s brief stint in power in the 1990s.

Taliban leaders have made a point of saying their attitude toward women has changed. Earlier this year, top Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an op-ed about a future Afghanistan “where the rights of women that are granted by Islam -- from the right to education to the right to work -- are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”

There are international media reports indicating that the Taliban is encouraging a certain level of education for girls in the rural Afghan regions they control. But the group’s recent comments to a Dutch broadcaster about the ongoing peace talks in Doha paint a picture of a low view of women, with a spokesman saying that women were neither responsible nor capable enough to be included on the hard-line movement’s negotiating team.

Afghans living under Taliban control, however, have seen few signs the group has changed. Nabila, a teenager who goes by one name only, is a resident of Faryab’s Dawlat Abad district, where the Taliban and Afghan forces frequently battle for control. She says that after the Taliban took control of her village she was forced to stop going to school and now must spend her days at home weaving carpets and embroidering.

“I attended school, but when the Taliban came they said we could not study past the sixth grade,” Nabila tells Radio Free Afghanistan. “The area became very unsafe after that, so I could not continue my studies.”

Nabila says she wants the government to provide safety and security for her and her peers so she can pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

Decades of war, insecurity, and economic poverty in Afghanistan have hurt women the most. Most Afghan women believe access to education is just one of the many hurdles they face in their quest for equality. In seeking an education, they face other challenges such as strict societal traditions, poverty, negligence by officials, a lack of facilities, a lack of female teachers, and harassment, amid other factors.

The Afghan Education Ministry estimates that of the 3.7 million children deprived of education across Afghanistan, more than 60 percent are girls. Nooria Nazhat, a spokeswoman for the ministry, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that it is common for girls to drop out of school because of taboos or misconceptions about education.

"A number of girls who attend school often leave because of cultural barriers stopping them. This is on top of the issues of insecurity, distasteful customs, and widespread poverty,” she says.