There are a number of contributing factors implicated in the poor state of girls’ education and gender inequality in Afghanistan. According to the UNDP’s human development report (2017), Afghanistan ranked 168 out of 189 countries on the gender equality index, with only 11.4% of the female population over 25 with some secondary education. Latest estimates suggest that some 3.5million children aged between 0 and 14 (amounting to over 50% of the child population) are without a formal education, 60% of them girls.
As with many countries where cultural norms limit the use of contraception, Afghanistan is experiencing a youth bulge, with reports from 2015 stating that over 68% of the population was under 25. Ensuring that this young population are given opportunity, both educationally and in terms of job creation, is fundamental to enriching the quality of life in the country. Evidently this measure is complicated by the political instability which has plagued Afghanistan for so long, and yet is simultaneously fundamental in helping to address the factors that lead to extremist ideologies.
Not only are there a number of barriers that have actively prevented many young people from accessing schooling and training opportunities, but there are also various issues that have led to much of the available education being of low quality. Accessibility obstacles include a lack of schools, poor school infrastructure, and socio-cultural norms, and these factors have been exacerbated by decades of armed conflict, poverty and climate-related disasters.
The situation for the education of girls is particularly difficult. Although the gender gap in literacy is narrowing and showing continuous improvement at the primary education level, educational opportunities in general are still limited for girls and women.
Conflict and instability
Four decades of conflict has played a huge part in compounding many of the contributing factors that result in poor attendance and low-quality schooling. Part of this has been to do with the ideology of the armed opposition groups that have not traditionally countenanced that women should be educated or play any equitable role to men in civic life. Moreover, such instability contributes hugely to a keeping the population in the grip of poverty, meaning that more children are unable to go to school.
Poverty plays a huge part in the exclusion of many children from school in Afghanistan, and of course not just girls. Geography and political instability have also taken their toll on household incomes, creating a twofold problem: those households inclined to educate their daughters are often unable to afford the transport, uniform, books and materials necessary, and others are inclined to have their children play vital roles in the household or on money-making activities like working on the family farm. Shuras (local committees) have been proactive in visiting homes and speaking with parents and it seems that pressures for child labour are being alleviated through these efforts, particularly in some provinces. Nevertheless, household poverty is a continuing barrier to the success of shura efforts to mobilise families to send children to school, due to these households’ necessity to maintain girls’ and boys’ domestic and other labour, with few other available options for family subsistence. The situation is even more bleak for children with disabilities, as the resources to assist them are, for the most part, very much absent from the majority of households.
Accessibility and geography
Given the mountainous topography of the region, it is no surprise that for many communities accessibility to schools and energy networks to enable study at night is a major issue. Poor road quality and a lack of transport options in remote areas makes the physical journey to school long and arduous, as well as particularly dangerous for girls and young women to travel along unprotected. Many families are unable to afford safe transport to schools located far away and the result is that these young women often miss out on the chance of education.
3.5million Afghan children are without a formal education – 60% of them are girls
The lack of schools serving the needs of remote communities is evidently a large barrier for many young people, but often where schools do exist they have been vastly under resourced and thus the environments are not conducive to quality learning experiences. In some provinces, classrooms are no more than tents, causing children to fall ill frequently due to extreme weather conditions. Climate-related disasters, such as landslides and flash-flooding also play a part in preventing improvements to roads, energy lines and school buildings. Access and facilities for children with disabilities is also an issue. Few schools have access ramps, for example, or other accommodations for the physical, mental and learning difficulties that affect so many (globally, around 15% of the population).
Lack of female teachers
A lack of teachers well-trained in modern, student-centred pedagogy poses another problem. Specifically, for young women, the lack of qualified female teachers adds to their sense of exclusion – without these female role models, it is difficult for young women to find the sensitivity in a school setting which meets their needs. Further compounding the problem, fewer girls are drawn to teaching after they finish their studies, due not only to a lack of female teachers to serve as role models but also to there being few graduate training programmes to facilitate this. Additionally, many parents feel uncomfortable sending their girls to schools where there are only male teachers.
School-based violence is a reality for a large number of children in Afghanistan. This can take the form of physical punishment or verbal intimidation or humiliation at the hands of teachers, harassment or bullying by other students or adults in school or on the way to school, or abuse of students by adults in a position of trust within the school. Although corporal punishment of children in schools is prohibited by law according to the Education Act of 2008, teachers still tend to use traditional methods to punish students. While violence remains very present in Afghan schools, its extent is still largely unknown due to difficulty and cultural sensitivities in collecting data around this, and poor understanding of Child Safeguarding issues in Afghanistan.
Though the situation has been improving in recent times, it has still been problematic for wider Afghan society to recognise the value inherent in women becoming educated, and the benefits that it brings to the whole community, and this attitude comes from many women as well as men. The role that women have traditionally played in domestic life is still seen by many as more valuable to the household economy, especially in many rural communities that subsist on traditional breadwinning activities like farming. Moreover, a woman’s position as a child-bearer complicates any potential opportunity for her to pursue a career (as indeed it still does the world over). This is especially an issue in societies where children are often expected to take on a portion of the domestic chores or work from an early age, as these factors reinforce the need for women to breed rather than study or commit to a career.
Evidently there are a raft of factors that have led to poor access, retention rates and learning opportunities for girls and young women in Afghanistan, and often these factors overlap, making them complex to address. Any attempt to address them has to be sensitive to the context, which is one of poverty, political instability and harsh climactic conditions. Grassroots consultations with affected communities are vital in establishing sustainable outcomes that result in better opportunities for young women, but these conversations must also be fed into policy decisions, which is complicated by an unstable political system. A multi-input approach that aims to address these factors in tandem is likely to be the most effective solution, but will inevitably require long-term strategic investments and will need to be monitored and evaluated in terms of the wider impact on community lives in order to be useful in any policy discussions.