Four Ways to Support Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan

A crucial deadline looms for girls in Afghanistan: the Taliban say they will reopen all girls’ secondary schools in late March 2022, when the new school year commences in most provinces.

But it is far from clear what that will mean in practice if they follow through.

After taking power on August 15, 2021, the Taliban ordered that from September 18, boys’ secondary schools should reopen; they did not mention girls’ schools. Most girls’ schools have remained closed from August, depriving most adolescent girls access to education, one of many violations of the rights of girls and women committed by the Taliban since they gained control of the country.

Donors are seeking ways to induce the Taliban to respect human rights, often with particular emphasis on girls’ education. This document suggests right-based approaches that donors should take to promote access to education for girls and women in Afghanistan.

These approaches are:

  1. Fund education without funding discrimination;
  2. Support communities as they fight for girls’ right to education;
  3. Stand by Afghans under threat for defending the right to education; and
  4. Monitor all aspects of access to education.

This paper includes examples from difficult-to-obtain research on the ground, including from Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, where, unusually, schools remained open after the Taliban takeover. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews about girls’ education in Balkh province in late 2021 and early 2022 with three educators, four girls who were current secondary school students, and a young woman overseeing her younger siblings’ education. This paper also draws from 17 interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch and San Jose State University in Ghazni and Herat provinces; other discussions with educators, students, activists, experts, service delivery agencies, and donors; as well as published sources. All interviews were conducted remotely, using secure communication means. The exchange rate was about 92 Afghanis (Afs) to one US dollar at the time of the interviews; we have used this conversion rate in the text.

School closures and openings

The Taliban have since August 2021 imposed a wide range of abusive policies that rolled back and violate the rights of women and girls. In addition to denying girls and women access to education, the Taliban have banned women from most forms of paid employment and brutally retaliated against female activists who have advocated for the rights of women and girls. Afghanistan is also experiencing a devastating humanitarian and financial crisis driven by decisions made by international donors, especially the United States.

While in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban’s rights record was characterized by systematic violations of the rights of women and girls; cruel corporal punishments, including executions; and extreme suppression of freedom of religion, expression, and education. Girls and women were banned from all forms of education.

Taliban policies on education since August 2021 have been a collection of fragmented and sometimes incoherent policies. These have had the overall effect of depriving a large proportion of girls and women any access to education and, for many others, creating an environment in which even if they are allowed to study it has become impossible for them to do so. Female students have been allowed to attend primary school, mostly banned from attending secondary school, and partially permitted to attend higher education but under circumstances that pushed many out of studying.

After August 2021, primary schools continued to operate, and girls were permitted to attend, although the Taliban swiftly made and enforced rules on gender segregation, restricting most teachers to instructing only students of their own gender. Community-based education classes – classes typically run by nongovernmental organizations to provide primary education to students, often girls, who need to catch up or are in an area where they cannot access a government school – restarted gradually, as the organizations running them needed to negotiate and gain approval from new local Taliban officials.

Girls’ secondary schools became a patchwork. The vast majority of girls’ schools have remained closed, depriving millions of girls of access to secondary education. In Balkh, secondary schools never closed, and in 6 to 9 out of the country’s 34 provinces, girls’ secondary schools gradually reopened after the September 18 decree. In December 2021, the school year ended for most students in the 25 “cold weather” provinces, where schools break for winter until March because they do not have the infrastructure and resources for heating.

The Taliban in theory permit women and girls to continue higher education, but in practice have done so in a manner that – perhaps intentionally – has driven many female students out of education. Upon taking power, the Taliban swiftly issued guidelines imposing harsh gender segregation and new rules on conduct and clothing for women attending universities. Under these rules, private universities struggled to remain open, both because of the new restrictions and because the financial crisis meant that many of their students could no longer afford their fees. Many young women also felt less able or willing to prioritize university studies in the face of Taliban bans on most paid employment for women, save for as educators for girls and healthcare providers for women.

The Taliban kept government-run universities closed for months for both men and women, allowing them to reopen in February 2022 with strict rules in place on gender segregation and female students’ dress and conduct, many female students did not or could not return for financial and other reasons.

The United Nations and others have sought to maintain pressure on the Taliban to provide education by treating the Taliban’s statements about girls’ secondary schools reopening in late March as a solid commitment. Afghan education experts have, however, pointed out that in the country’s nine “hot weather” provinces, where schools take their break in July and August, girls’ secondary schools also remain closed. If the Taliban genuinely intend to reopen all girls’ secondary schools, as they claim, schools in “hot weather” provinces should be open now. The Taliban has not explained why they are not open.

There are also concerns regarding Taliban statements that suggest specific conditions must be met for girls’ secondary schools to reopen. The Taliban have not said clearly what these conditions are, whether they might hurt access to or quality of girls’ education, and whether the Taliban is working to meet them – or they will become another justification for schools remaining closed.

The education system, like all public services in Afghanistan, is at risk of collapse due to the economic crisis in the country. It will not matter whether the Taliban permit girls to study if the country does not have functioning schools.

The following are steps that donor countries, aid agencies, and the UN can take that will help to support access to and quality of secondary education for girls and women.

Donor funding for education costs, including teachers’ salaries and other operating expenses, has a crucial role in ensuring access to education in Afghanistan for girls and boys. Before the Taliban takeover, about 75 percent of the government’s budget and 49 percent of education expenditure came from international donors. The Taliban have little ability to fill this gap, so donor support remains essential, at least in the short term. Teachers have already gone many months without being paid, and while many continue to work, the situation is not sustainable. “One of the other reasons the schools are still operating in Balkh is that UNICEF and WFP [World Food Program] have promised to provide some food items and money to pay the teachers,” a government school official said.

At the same time, donors should not fund discrimination. If a part of the education system, for example secondary schools in a particular province, excludes girls, any donor who is funding that part of the education system would be complicit in the gender discrimination taking place there. This tension requires donors to navigate carefully how to fund education.

The best way to do this is to approach the education sector as separate components when it comes to funding decisions. Donors should fund primary education, as girls have not been excluded. They should also continue robust funding for community-based education classes, which serve girls and boys.

Regarding secondary education, as long as some girls’ secondary school remain shuttered by the Taliban, donors should fund the education system province by province. They should fund only provinces where they are able to verify and monitor on an ongoing basis that girls’ secondary schools are open and fully functioning (see more on monitoring and “fully functioning” below). Funding secondary education only in provinces where girls are studying may also encourage pressure from communities on the Taliban to reopen schools, if people see that their province could access not just education but also teachers’ salaries.

At the level of higher education, the same rule should apply – donors should fund only parts of the higher education system that are fully accessible to and used by women and girls on an equal basis with men and boys. They should also ensure that all programs supporting scholarships and remote or overseas study for Afghans serve at least half female students.

Donors should carefully weigh Afghan views when assessing what leverage they have or should use to influence Taliban behavior. “Even if we die of hunger, I don’t want the international community to recognize the Taliban at the cost of compromising our rights and freedom,” a student said. “I hope the international community commits to that. If the Taliban are recognized, Afghanistan will regress in every aspect.”

Donor funds can provide important incentives to communities and the Taliban. For example, in Balkh province, students and teachers report that when donors began distributing aid through schools it boosted flagging attendance. A school official described UN cash payments at her school of 1,800 Afs [US$20] per student per month. A student at a different school described similar payments, saying: “The economy in Afghanistan is broken. Families are struggling a lot. I saw that not many girls returned to schools in the beginning… However, when many families heard about [the World Food Program’s] support for students and teachers, they allowed their daughters to join.”

Donors should be allies to communities that are already pushing the Taliban to permit girls’ education. In a 2019 survey, 87 percent of Afghans surveyed said women should have the same opportunities as men in education. Taliban officials are currently facing pressure from communities to allow girls and women to study, including to reopen girls’ secondary schools.

Balkh province provides an example of this. The schools there, including girls’ secondary schools, never closed, despite the Taliban’s order opening only boys’ secondary schools. “We were still in summer break when the Taliban took our city,” a student said. “After the break, we just went back as if nothing had happened.” She said initially few students showed up – only two to three girls per class – but the number grew over time. “We had decided that we would go to school no matter what. I think the students kept pushing it by being present – they couldn’t stop us.”

A teacher echoed this view: “We continued going to school. Female teachers and students returned, despite all the fears. In one class, only 5 were present of 46 students. … I don’t say it was easy. But we kept going. Two big and famous female schools in Mazar [in Balkh province] sent a document to Taliban leadership in Mazar saying we would not close our schools. ‘You can inspect the schools, but we will not stop girls’ education.’”

They believe the attention of the international community and international media kept them safe during this time. “The Taliban want to get recognition from the international community,” one of the students said. “So, when we had already returned to our schools before their order, they thought it’s better to not mess with Balkh.” Another student said that while the Taliban whip women who they feel are immodestly dressed, they avoid having the abuse filmed. “They fear their abuses being exposed.”

International attention and pressure can play an important role in mitigating Taliban abuses, but they need to be sustained. “I believe keeping schools operating in Balkh province is symbolic – they are looking for international recognition,” a government school official said. “We don’t have any hope that this will continue. Once [the Taliban] gain legitimacy, funding, and support from the world, it will be the same Afghanistan in which women are not allowed to work, study, and participate in society.”

People – especially women and girls – who challenge the Taliban, demanding respect for human rights, including the right to education, face severe risk. The Taliban has responded brutally to women’s rights protests, silenced women journalists, and retaliated against women’s rights activists through abduction, arbitrary detention, and forced confessions.

“I have been specifically targeted and threatened by the Taliban leaders,” a government school official said. She described months of Taliban intimidation over her past efforts to advocate for women’s rights and links with the previous government. One day the authorities summoned her to a remote government office in an unsafe area, where Taliban officials harangued her. “When I went there, I thought it was related to my work,” she said. “If I knew I was summoned to be threatened, I wouldn’t have gone. I was asked to go there alone.”

Donors should take all available measures to protect human rights defenders in Afghanistan, including those fighting for the right to education. They should restore or continue funding for organizations advocating for education, and support grantees in adapting their work to current security constraints.

Donors should also monitor and speak out about attacks on rights defenders. Although their ability to do so is hampered by the Taliban’s silencing of the Afghan media and activists’ fears of speaking out, donors can still track reported abuses, including with the help of activists they fund, and should push for more robust mechanisms to track abuses against rights defenders.

In March, the UN Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Donors should press to ensure that the new UNAMA mandate includes extensive monitoring of human rights from within the country, public reporting on human rights violations, and engaging in regular dialogue with the Taliban about Afghanistan’s obligations under international human rights law. This includes Afghanistan’s duty to ensure full gender equality as provided under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Afghanistan ratified in 2003. Donor countries should also make it a priority – on an ongoing basis – to engage with UN processes to ensure UNAMA has the mandate, resources, staffing, and diplomatic backing necessary to fully perform these functions.

Also in March, the UN Human Rights Council will appoint a special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, with a mandate that includes monitoring and advocating for the rights of women and girls. Donors should engage closely with the special rapporteur, ensuring that the mandate-holder prioritizes the rights of women and girls, including to education, and has the resources and political backing to do so.

Donors should respond to all credible reports of attacks on human rights defenders quickly and vocally. International pressure appears to have contributed to the Taliban releasing some detained people and modifying or disowning some abusive policies. Donor responses to abuses can help make activists safer and help create some of the space activists and their communities need to be able to negotiate with the Taliban and gain concessions.

Access to education requires much more than unlocked school gates. Donors, as they craft expectations and monitoring strategies for funding girls’ education in Afghanistan, should consider the full range of factors that affect whether girls can access education, key aspects of which are detailed in the remainder of this document.

The Taliban’s statements and actions are often at odds: it has become a common refrain among donors that they will judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words. To judge the Taliban by their actions, donors need access to regular and reliable information about them and apply this information when making decisions about conditionality and funding to the education sector. They should also coordinate their efforts, work together to press the Taliban on human rights, and share information among themselves.

There is little effective monitoring at present. Most embassies have closed, so donors have little ability to have their own staff monitor access to education. The Taliban has muzzled and censored the Afghan media, and the international media has mostly moved on. Donors looking to support girls’ education, and education and the rights of women and girls more broadly, will need to press for effective monitoring from the UN and other institutions such as the World Bank to support this work.

Many interviewees described declining attendance in girls’ secondary schools. A March World Bank survey found a small increase since the Taliban takeover in the percentage of rural households sending girls to both primary and secondary school, but a larger decrease in urban families sending girls to secondary school. “The attendance level had dropped significantly,” a student in Mazar-i-Sharif said of her school. “In every class, 8 or 5 people were present. …The teachers had to merge classes. I must reiterate that the low attendance level was scary.” “Since the Taliban returned, I have witnessed that many students left or dropped from school,” another student said. “Of 17 or 18 students in my class, only 9 students are left.”

Girls are dropping out or at risk of doing so for reasons that include fear of Taliban violence; gender-based violence within their families and communities that may have been exacerbated by the Taliban’s return to power; new Taliban restrictions on their conduct and dress; Taliban surveillance and harassment; deterioration in quality of education related to teachers’ well-being or curriculum changes; and a sense of hopelessness about their future.

The humanitarian and economic crisis has also meant that many students – especially at private schools – can no longer afford their fees. Families seeking private education usually do so because of the poor quality of government schools, and the relatively low cost of private schools – for example, one girl spoke of classmates dropping out because they could not afford the 1,500 Afs [$16] per month fee.

As donors – and the international community more broadly – seek to monitor access to education for Afghan girls and women, they should monitor not just whether the school is open, but also what environment exists inside, what education is being provided, and whether girls have the safety and incentives they need to be able to show up and learn.

Fear of violence from the Taliban

Fear of violence from Taliban members impairs girls’ and women’s freedom of movement, making it harder for them to continue their studies. Several described incidents of violence, or family fears about their safety, if they attended school. “Our students at the high school level are young women,” a teacher said. “They are worried that something might happen to them on the way to school if they don’t wear a full hijab or if they don’t cover their faces. They fear being whipped.”

The same teacher described an incident when she was walking with her daughter:

I saw a woman in a burqa with her teenage daughter without a burqa. A Taliban soldier was screaming at the girl, calling her nasty words. I asked what the issue was, from a person standing there. They said it was because the daughter was wearing red lipstick. The Taliban soldier shouted at the mother too, whipped the girl at her feet; the girl was crying. He asked their home address. He knocked on their door, summoned her brother, slapped him in the face, and asked what kind of a man he was. The soldier added, “Take care of your ‘namos’ [honor, or property] or, if I see her like this again, I will shoot you in the head.” All this happened before my eyes. Another day around two months ago, I saw two girls being verbally abused by the Taliban for sharing a taxi with a man. I heard the Taliban at a checkpoint calling the girls “whores.” They [the Taliban] beat the man.

A male school principal said:

Our younger students, both girls and boys, were terrified of how the Taliban appeared in the streets with guns. Some of the students drew [pictures of] their horror of the Taliban and shared them with their parents. Their parents came to me worried… It had affected them psychologically. I had to talk to the Taliban soldiers, requesting them not to walk with their guns around the school area as it had terrified our students. Some accepted my request.

“The Taliban visit our school; they come fully armed,” a student said. “They know that the students fear them a lot; they don’t enter the classes. These visits happen regularly.” She said the Taliban collected payments from the school in return for permitting it to remain open. “When I see the Taliban’s Rangers [trucks] and weapons, I feel so terrified. Girls in grades 11 and 12 used to wear school uniforms; now, most wear burqas because they are frightened. We hear those women and girls who don’t wear the full hijab or burqa get beaten by the Taliban soldiers in the city center.”

The head of a school estimated that 10 percent of her female students had not returned. She thought the main reason was that their families were affiliated with the previous government, feared being targeted by the Taliban, and thus were too afraid to send their daughters to school. “The dead bodies of kidnapped and killed individuals were found around the city,” she said. “Some of them were connected to political families, or were children of politicians, and some others came from rich families who run businesses in Mazar. This causes fear to our students’ parents coming from similar backgrounds.”

Child and forced marriage and discriminatory gender norms

The Taliban have largely dismantled systems and services established to respond to violence against women and girls, including shelters, and specialized prosecution units and courts responsible for enforcing the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. They have also abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which assisted women and girls experiencing violence, including through its provincial offices. These changes left girls and women more vulnerable to violence and removed forms of recourse and protection survivors of gender-based violence could access in the past. Girls’ vulnerability to violence – and they and their families’ perceptions of this vulnerability – affects their ability to study.

Many families fear that Taliban fighters will abduct and forcibly marry girls and women. This fear was especially acute immediately after the Taliban took over. “I cannot even describe how we were feeling those days,” a student said. “My mother was worried that the Taliban would abduct my sister or me. …That night, I cried till the dawn. I don’t think anyone slept that night in Mazar.”

The same student said two girls at her school were already engaged before the Taliban returned. “There was an agreement that they could continue education until they finished high school. However, with the Taliban’s return to power, the families were worried about Taliban soldiers taking away young single women, so they married them off. There wasn’t even a ceremony. They summoned the grooms to take the hands of their brides and start their lives.” The girls were no longer allowed to study.

Because marriage is seen by some families as protecting girls, including from Taliban abuses, girls continue to face increased risk of child marriage that jeopardizes their education. A teacher explained:

At the beginning of the Taliban’s return, there was a rumor that they’d take away young widows and single women and marry them to their soldiers. That rumor scared a lot of families. Because of honor issues, the families did not even wait to see if it was true or not. Some of my students’ families married them off by force to cousins, neighbors, and anyone they considered a decent person. According to the families, they gave women an owner so the Taliban couldn’t take them or abduct them. The number of girls being victims of the Taliban in this way are too many. Even now, it is happening. Girls as young as 13 and 14 have been engaged by force in our school.

She described how one of her students was forced to marry at 17 because of these fears. “She has been abused in marriage, and she has been beaten for many reasons,” the teacher said. “Her husband was forcing her to have sex every night. He had told her that if she didn’t agree to have sex with him every night, then he wouldn’t let her go to school. She has shown me bruises. I tried to talk to her husband, but he abused her for that, too. One couldn’t believe she was the same girl in final exam time. She seemed exhausted, lost, and full of pain. She couldn’t remain focused in exams. …This is just one example; there are many stories like this.”

The return of the Taliban has also encouraged greater restrictions on some girls by their families. A student said she had been in touch with some classmates who had left school after the Taliban’s return. “I learned that their families did not allow them to continue education any further after the Taliban,” she said. “Their families are very strict. I understand those girls, and I feel really sad for them.”

The head of a private school described a situation in which the parents of a boy and girl decided to withdraw their daughter from his school as they had lost income due to the economic crisis and now could only afford one set of private school fees. “I understand our society is patriarchal, and families are under much pressure these days,” he said. “So, I didn’t judge or blame the parents. I assume they have given it much thought and decided that a girl wouldn’t have a future beyond getting married, especially since there’s no certainty about women’s university education.” He kept the girl in school by waiving her fees temporarily and telling the parents that he would expel their son if the daughter left.

Women and girls described situations in which men in their families who previously have chafed at the increasing independence of girls and women in their families but felt unable to block it now feel fully able to do so. “Conservative and patriarchal families took the opportunity to stop girls from going to school,” a teacher said.

New dress codes and conduct rules, and Taliban surveillance of girls and women

All of the female students and teachers we spoke with described new rules about dress. The problem is not simply dress requirements. Heavy-handed policing and enforcement of these requirements by the Taliban contributes to a nervous and uncomfortable environment in which teaching and learning are impaired. “One month after [the Taliban’s] presence in the city, they brought a group of 20 girls from some village to set an example of how our students must dress,” a school director said. “They wore all black and looked like crows. They sang the Taliban anthem, and their clothing was presented as the new school uniforms.”

“In terms of school uniforms, a Taliban representative visited our school before winter break, and he said that all the teachers and students should wear Islamic hijabs,” a teacher said. The Taliban member explained that by “Islamic hijab” he meant long black dresses, and that their faces should be covered by a niqab or mask. “One of the teachers said, ‘Look at our school uniform…’ He said, ‘No, it will be a sin if I look at women. Just wear long black dresses – they shouldn’t be colorful.’”

“A Taliban member came to monitor our school,” a student at a private school said. “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter if the weather is hot or cold; all students must comply with Islamic clothing.’ According to him, schoolgirls should wear long black dresses as long as their ankles and cover their faces with masks. They don’t care about Covid. They want us to cover our faces. He said, ‘If you can wear a niqab, that would be perfect, but if not, you should wear a face mask.’”

Teachers find themselves in the position of being obliged to enforce Taliban rules. “In the beginning, most girls were worried and conscious about clothing,” a 16-year-old student said. “Our teachers pushed us to wear long dresses, hijabs, and long scarves. When we confronted them, saying our clothing was already Islamic, they said we’d better compromise to not get attacked by the Taliban.”

Not all teachers, however, find this uncomfortable. “We witnessed a change in the behavior of our teachers,” a student said. “Some of them approved of the Taliban. We never thought we had Taliban members as our teachers in the school; it was very dispiriting to see that. For example, when we complained about the Taliban, some teachers who changed their attitude would get angry at us. They would say, ‘It’s good that the Taliban are back because women have been out of line in the past years, and they are Westernized.’”

Interviewees in several provinces described the Taliban enforcing their rules through school inspections. “When the schools were reopened, the Taliban soldiers visited the school many times,” a government school official in Balkh province said. “They kept asking why the girls above 12 years old do not wear burqas, why they don’t cover their faces, why the teachers dress in certain ways.” She said they continue to come twice a week:

They enter the school at any time they want. The reason is that they wish to inspect and watch the way students and teachers dress. Somehow, they want to catch us red-handed. If they see something they disapprove of, they threaten us, saying, “You’re the reason for the schools to be closed.” … The way they enter the school creates much fear. All of a sudden a group pulls up in cars in front of the school. If they notice someone wearing some makeup or a student with a loose scarf, they scream and make a big scene. Their presence is so frightening that until the moment they leave, we feel like [we’re] dying and coming back to life every moment.

One student said a Taliban member was permanently installed in her school:

We had a school canteen [shop] in school. After August the same man ran it, but later a Taliban member joined the canteen seller. He was present there every day; I think his job was to watch and observe us and what we did. We had a hard time carrying ourselves in a long hijab. It was uncomfortable. But also, they wanted to control us through these restrictions. Knowing that makes it worse.

Teachers’ salaries

Teachers have been paid partially and intermittently or not at all since August 2021. Most have gone months without their salaries. A teacher explained that after four or five months of receiving no salary, in February she received two months’ payment for August and September, but she received one third less than her usual salary – 3,000 Afs [$33] rather than 4,500 Afs [$49]. She was told that the missing portion was deducted by the Taliban, for the mujahedeen (fighters). “We already pay tax,” she said.

The head of a private school was forced to ask teachers to accept salary cuts. “Most of them agreed to that,” he said. “We highly depend on student fees. Eighty percent of our students cannot pay the total amount. After the regime change, we have lost 20 to 25 percent of our students as they have left the city or the country. That has affected our income as well.”

Lost income has had a devastating impact on teachers and their families. “One of the biggest problems we face in the education sector is that teachers’ salaries have not been paid,” a principal said. “The teachers are also economically vulnerable, and for most of them, their salary is the only source of income. They have rents to pay and bills to take care of with the small amount they receive per month.”

“They can’t feed their children,” the head of a school said of teachers at her school. “One told us she buys one kilogram of cold, dry, and unusable bread for 10 Afs [$0.11] and makes something with them to feed her children. Hearing this made me cry.”

Her own situation was also difficult. “I had to sell some of our belonging to survive poverty,” she said. “We have sold our carpets, couches, car, and all the extra home-decorating material we had at home. And it’s not only me, but other teachers have also done the same. We are aware that those who didn’t have such things to sell had to put their children for sale, as you must have heard in the news. I’m afraid the same fate will come to us if the situation continues.”

These hardships affect the quality of education for students. “Our students come to school with much fear and anxiety,” the head of a school said. “They are worried for their future as they know their teachers haven’t been paid for months, and it can’t sustain like that.” Some teachers stopped showing up, and those that still teach are struggling. “The quality of education was compromised,” a student said. “Our teachers were under so much pressure. They were worried. Hopelessness was seen in the faces of our teachers. They were losing motivation. I don’t blame them. They were not paid for months, and they were desperate for a way out.”

One teacher explained why she continued to work: “At least by teaching my students, I feel more confident in myself and my role in society…. I love my job, and I do it with my heart. I want Afghan girls to bloom and grow.” Another said: “We, the women of Afghanistan, are tough. Even in this challenging time, women are the only breadwinners, at least in the community of teachers. We made sacrifices and compromises, from working with no promise of payment to changing how we dressed. But we did not give up.”

Impact of gender segregation

The Taliban have imposed strict rules prohibiting female and male students from studying together and requiring that only women can teach female students and only men can teach male students. Afghanistan already faced a severe shortage of female teachers, with some provinces having almost none. With the Taliban’s return, some teachers fled the country and others left their jobs out of fear or because they were not being paid – factors that have deepened the shortage of female teachers. The strict gender segregation imposed by the Taliban has particularly harmful consequences in higher education, where it shuts students off from the specialized expertise of professors of a different gender, but the new rules are also harming access to education for girls in secondary school.

“The new rules in the school were separate timing for female and male students,” a student said, explaining that the school had always had separate shifts for girls and boys, but the female and male students used to see each other during the change over, and the timings have now been changed so that they never encounter male students. “No male teacher or staff is allowed to work in girls’ schools and shift for girls. Our school principal was a man; he cannot return to work now.”

The principal of a private school explained that in August 2021, his school had about 700 female students studying for the college entrance exam (the kankor), and their teachers were mostly men. He asked the Taliban for flexibility and was allowed to continue with a curtain separating the classroom but was told that this must be changed by the next academic year and that all students from fourth grade on must be separated by gender. “We do not have enough personnel to teach female students separately by female teachers and teach male students by male teachers,” he said. “We also do not have the facilities to accommodate students in separate classrooms or buildings…With the current financial circumstances, it seems impossible to apply the Taliban’s policies in this regard.”

Curriculum changes

The Taliban have already imposed curriculum changes in some provinces, as they had previously in parts of the country they controlled before August 2021. In Balkh province, the changes have not yet happened but it is clear that they are coming. “We have been asked to remove subjects like sports, civics, culture,” a principal said. “We didn’t remove them this year, but they will be removed next academic year. More religious subjects will be added, and the hours [of religious study] will increase too. We have been told that grades 1 to 12 must devote more hours to learning Pashto [Afghanistan has two official languages, Dari and Pashto. The Taliban are predominantly Pashto speakers]. In the past, our students started learning Pashto from grade 4…. They have warned us to schedule religious subjects in the early morning hours because, according to them, once the students come from the 15-minute break later in the morning, they get exhausted, so they cannot digest and understand the teaching fully.”

“In terms of curriculum change, we have heard from the school leadership that the English language will be removed or reduced from three hours per week to one hour,” a teacher at a different school said. “Science subjects and mathematics were taught six sessions per week; they will be reduced to four sessions per week. [Pashto language and] Islamic subjects will have added hours. The physical activity/sports subject will be removed.”

A student at a government school said her school had already ended English classes. “Since the return of the Taliban, our English teacher doesn’t teach; our school says English subject is suspended for the moment,” she said. “We have heard that there will be changes in the next academic year.”

Decreased incentives for girls to study

One of the largest barriers to girls studying in Afghanistan under the Taliban is a feeling of futility. Girls, and their families feel that even if they can study, there is little purpose in doing so, as the Taliban has banned women from most forms of employment and even when women are permitted to work, limits on their freedom of movement make it difficult for them to do so. “It is tough to keep the students motivated,” a student said. “Families say, ‘What have those who studied before you achieved?’”

One student had studied for the university entrance exam for two years. She was informed in October 2021, two months after the return of the Taliban, that she had been accepted to study engineering at a prominent university. But at the time of the interview the university was closed, and women are no longer allowed to work as engineers. “I must stay home and do nothing about it,” she said.

“I feel so sorry for girls in my country,” another student said. “I know many girls who studied hard to enter university and work after that. Now women have lost all freedoms, and we cannot even go to the streets alone. How can we travel and explore the world?” “After the fall of Afghanistan, my mental health was affected so much,” another student said. “I did not see any future for myself; it made me depressed.”

One girl described feeling left alone at her school:

Half of my classmates have left the city or country; they are refugees now because of the Taliban. I have two classmates who were not allowed to continue school, but their parents pushed them to get English classes outside school [to prepare them] to leave the country. Five of our teachers have left the school, too. Like my classmates, they have sought refuge in other countries.

Donors can help keep girls’ dreams alive by generously funding scholarships for female students to pursue higher education, both inside and outside of Afghanistan. “I have not allowed the Taliban to lower my spirit, and I will never let them take my hope away,” said a student, 15, studying for university entrance exams. “I will study, and I will go to university, and I will take my studies seriously…. I want to be a judge in the future, and I’m putting all my energy there. I don’t and won’t think about the Taliban; these are critical years for me and my classmates. We want to enter universities. That is our goal.”

The dream of studying outside Afghanistan is a beacon of hope to many girls. “I am so hopeless for the future,” a 15-year-old student said. She continued:

I think the situation is not going better. When I see the Taliban, I think the Taliban will never change. People keep saying that they will not survive [in power] but I think they’ll get seven or eight years of our lives at least, oppressing women as they do…When the Taliban came, whatever dream we talked about, the response would be that now you cannot dream in the presence of the Taliban. I think the only way the girls in grades 11 and 12 find hope and motivation is that they think about leaving Afghanistan. They plan to go. I am thinking the same way.

A crucial task for donors is to recognize that the issue of access to education cannot exist in a vacuum and push hard for the Taliban to end their violations of other rights of women and girls, including women’s right to work, in all occupations and roles. As long as women are denied access to most forms of employment – and their ability to participate in public life is constrained through restrictions on their free movement and speech – education will seem useless or like a poor investment to many girls and families. Donors’ focus on girls’ education is important, but it should not be at the cost of advocating for other rights for women and girls, and any concessions the Taliban may make on girls’ education should not overshadow other continuing abuses.

“I hope to wake up one day and see an Afghanistan where girls are free – women can work, ride their bicycles, and show their arts in public streets,” a student said.