KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Three months ago, Mina, then in the 11th grade, was forced to end her studies in the southern province of Kandahar.
After her family had heard that a female health worker was gunned down in broad daylight, they pulled her out of school, as well as her sister, who was in the ninth grade at the time, and her cousin, who was working as a teacher at a nearby school.
On her final day of school, Mina, who asked that her name be changed to protect her from retribution, lamented to her classmates, “What can I do? I wanted to finish school and go to university, but my family have already decided it’s too unsafe.”
Mina and her family are not alone. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, an estimated two-thirds of all Afghan girls do not attend formal schooling. The 132-page report, “I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan,” cites security fears, like those experienced by Mina’s family as one of the leading factors that often keep girls from attending school.
The report’s findings are especially troubling given the repeated promises of the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, and their international backers, including Washington, that all Afghan girls would be able to attend school.
The numbers, however, show that 16 years later, Kabul and their foreign partners are far from reaching that goal. According to a survey conducted by the European Union and the Afghan Central Statistics Office, a mere 21.7 percent of girls and women are enrolled in formal or informal education.
Last January, the nation’s acting Minister of Education, Asadullah Mohaqiq, said insecurity has led to the closure of more than 1,000 schools across the country. Often, it is girls’ schools that are closed or suffer from low attendance due to insecurity.
According to HRW, “The Taliban and other armed groups sometimes target girls’ schools, female students and their teachers for attack.”
This, according to the rights group, leads to a situation where “the school that might previously have been seen as within walking distance becomes off-limits when parents fear that going there has become more dangerous.”
“Families usually have less tolerance for sending girls to school in insecure conditions than boys,” the report stated.
Orzala Ashraf Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, who has worked with Afghan families both in refugee camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan since 1999, agrees that insecurity is the primary reason families keep their daughters out of school.
“In my experience, the vast majority, maybe up to 95 or 98 percent of the time, the reasoning for keeping girls out of school is the lack of security,” Nemat told ThinkProgress.
According to the United Nations, between 2009 and 2012, there were more than 1,000 attacks on schools. These ranged from suicide bombings to IEDs and threats to staff.
“What can I do? I wanted to finish school and go to university, but my family have already decided it’s too unsafe.”
In 2012, residents of the Shamulzai district in the southern province of Zabul, which shares a border with neighboring Pakistan, said multiple schools came under threat from armed groups.
But it’s not just the armed opposition that poses a threat to the security of schools.
In the lead-up to the 2014 presidential elections, both HRW and the humanitarian non-governmental organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, warned the Afghan government against using schools and clinics as polling stations. That fear was not without precedent, during the 2009 elections, schools were the targets of 249 security incidents. At least one high school in Kabul reported that three armed men entered their campus on election day. The men, a teacher told local media, proceeded to check voters and stand beside the ballot boxes.
Further, every party in the Afghan conflict, from the armed opposition (including the Taliban) to the Afghan National Security Forces and coalition armies, have all been accused of using schools for military purposes. This means all sides of the Afghan conflict have placed schools directly in the line of fire at one point or another.
Last year’s school closures announcement came shortly after the ministry said that six million children are attending school in the country. Though HRW believes even that figure to be “optimistic,” if true, it would still be a major blow to Afghan and international efforts towards educating girls (and boys) in the country.
The reports of six million children in school represents a major downturn from the figure of 11 million, which the government of former President Hamid Karzai frequently touted. The last time school attendance was numbered at six million was in a 2013 World Bank report.
Beyond security, access to education can also be a major hindrance to the schooling of girls.
At the Chaman-e Babrak informal settlement in Kabul, nine-year-old Toubah* told ThinkProgress that although she attends classes at a nearby education facility, not government school, staying in school presents its own challenges.
“They give you a single notebook and some basic stationery when you start, but once they’re used up, you have to buy your own,” she said.
Eight-year-old Tawasom*, who attends the same class as Toubah, said for their families, many of whom were refugees in Pakistan who could not return to their native province of Laghman, the cost of those supplies is too high.
“I don’t know what we’ll do when the supplies run out, but I know my parents can’t afford to buy us new supplies like the other children,” she said.
Khanom Shokria, who has been living in the camp for seven years, told ThinkProgress her daughters never attended school in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Poverty forced her to marry off her daughters rather than sending them to school.
“I had no choice, I had to marry off my daughters when they were young, too young,” she admits. Shokria would not say at which age she married off her daughters, only that she now regrets how soon she did it.
Shokria’s daughters are not alone. HRW spoke to several girls who either had to work or be married off instead of going to school.
“Poverty both keeps many girls out of school and encourages child marriage,” the report stated. According to UNICEF, 33 percent of Afghan girls are married before the age of 18.
Of Shokria’s four remaining children, two sons attend school, but even they face discrimination.
“The students will make fun of them for being dirty and the teachers will say your shirt is not ironed, your pants are ripped, don’t come back until you get them fixed,” she said.
But for families making 150 ($1.20) to 200 ($2.93) Afghanis a day as porters, fruit sellers, and clothes washers, that can be difficult.
“My sons are in school right now because other people helped me out with supplies and uniforms,” Shokria added.
Sadiqa Jalali, an official in the directorate of women’s affairs from the southern province of Zabul told ThinkProgress that in the capital, Qalat, girls have been able to attend school, but finding qualified teachers and suitable buildings has proven difficult.
“We have a serious shortage of qualified, professional teachers, especially for girls,” Jalali said.
As most of the teachers in the province are men, Jalali said the lack of female teachers has proven to be a roadblock to educating girls. Zabul, like many provinces, lacks proper school buildings, she said.
According to a 2015 survey prepared for UNESCO by the World Education Forum, nearly 50 percent of Afghan schools lack usable buildings. A further 70 percent of school buildings lack boundary walls and 60 percent of schools do not have access to safe, drinkable water.
This, said Jalali, means many girls in Zabul have to study in tents or outside, leaving them susceptible to the elements. Statistics by the Ministry of Education paint a grimmer picture of the education sector in Zabul. According to education ministry figures, 162 of the 226 general education facilities in the province are closed due to security threats and cultural barriers.
Even in the city of Kabul, students are forced to study outdoors. In the Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood of the capital, nearly 9,000 students, including girls, must study outside without shelter from the heat, desks, or sanitation facilities.
Matiullah Wesa, a 24-year-old youth activist who has spent the last year traveling the nation’s 34 provinces to help open and re-open schools with his Penpath grassroots movement, said that there are currently 121 districts in the nation with no female graduates from the 12th grade.
Despite the mounting difficulties facing education in the country, there is hope, embodied by young people like Wesa and his Penpath movement.
“Whenever I arrive in a district, I talk to the people, the youth, parents, and religious leaders to gauge that state of education in their community,” Wesa told ThinkProgress.
From there, he presents locals with two arguments to help expand educational opportunities for boys and girls.
“Whenever people say, ‘We can’t send our daughters to schools where there are no female teachers,’ I respond by stating an obvious fact, ‘if girls are not educated how will you ever have female teachers?’”
When that does not work, Wesa employs two other arguments.
“We know that Pakistan and Iran are our enemy nations who continue to send fighters to kill our children,” Wesa said, referring to reports that both Pakistan and Iran have aided and abetted the armed opposition, including the Taliban. “But because we don’t have enough educated women, we continue to send our daughters and sisters to Iran and Pakistan for medical treatment.”
And if that doesn’t work, Wesa said he makes an argument no Afghan can contest.
“Islam is a religion of learning and it makes no distinction between girls and boys, it calls on all of our people to be informed and educated,” he said. “So as Muslims, we must ensure that our girls [and boys] are educated.”
*Last names have been withheld to protect the sources.