Advocating for Afghan girls' education
Afghanistan is a rugged country of great beauty straddling Asia and Europe, and it has been the scene of warfare and contestation for decades. The Taliban, a group connected to extreme violence, especially in the late 1990s, emerged as the power in control of Afghanistan recently, due to the void left by outsiders. This is their second time in power and the world can remember all too well that from the mid-1990s until 2001, their rule at the time was harsh and brutal, especially in their clampdown on the rights of women and girls. The latter suffered immensely from a lack of access to school, while the former were also prevented from employment.
Will the Taliban be more flexible the second time around? Currently, it is obvious that they are seeking international recognition, especially to access the United Nations (UN), in particular to occupy the Afghan seat at the UN General Assembly. They are also seeking validation among various regional organisations to which Afghanistan belongs or which are close to them. All this is amidst the impoverishment of the country, with international aid drying up and the country's reserves impounded abroad. Whatever economy existed beforehand is now in free-fall and there is evidently no money left in the state coffers.
How then should the international community strategise at least to get Afghan girls back to school and to ensure respect for their right to an education? In recent years, girls' education in Afghanistan was internationally acknowledged as a success story for the country. In a country of some 40 million people, with the majority belonging to the young generation, UN sources indicated there was an increase of children in school from one million in the year 2001 to ten million in 2018. Just before the recent Taliban takeover, about four out of ten students were girls and there was a doubling of female literacy for most of the past decade. Some provinces, like Herat -- an oasis city and the country's third-largest city, witnessed classes with more than 50% girls as the majority of the students.
The advent of the Taliban has led to automatic backtracking and backsliding which must be reversed. Currently, the Taliban allow girls to access primary school, but this is mainly limited to all girls' schools which only cover some 16% of the educational provisioning. Male teachers are not allowed to teach girls, yet there is a shortage of female teachers. There is no access for girls to secondary education, even though there is some access to private tertiary educational institutions.
The message from the Taliban is that they will not allow co-education and girls and boys should have separate classes. Afghanistan has always had gender segregated classes; before the arrival of the Taliban, at the universities, there were gender-mixed classes nevertheless -- perhaps due to a lack of female teachers. There has also been some variability between Kabul, the capital city, and the provinces, with some areas outside more flexible to girls' access to education.
Currently, there are vague signals from the Taliban that they might consider girls' access to secondary education and that the educational curriculum is being revamped. These signals might also be seen as a bargaining chip for international recognition and international aid, and the international community needs to exercise care and caution.
The door should not be closed to the possibility of leveraging for girls' education as a bridge between human rights, humanitarian assistance and development relief. This should not be subject to conditionality from the outside, although there is the natural expectation that international aid on this front would need to be monitored to ensure that it reaches the target group -- schools, teachers and students.
A key entry point is the UN and the UN Secretary-General has already called for girls' education as an imperative. The various UN agencies are taking up this call already, but with the depletion of resources due to Covid-19, there is the dilemma of a shortage of funds. On another front, the Organization of Islamic Conference which is the world forum for Muslim countries, should be encouraged to advocate strongly for girls' education. It can also send teams to visit the country to propel openings for girls' education.
There are some key countries which are geographically close to the country which can also help. Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey are countries which have long experience in dealing with the country and they can exert immense weight for some flexibility within the country, bearing in mind not only political clout but also development assistance.
At the regional level, the Taliban will increase its quest for validation. Afghanistan is already a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It is a member of the Economic Cooperation Organisation, three of whose members are Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. It is close to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which is comprised of key Central Asian countries. To the west of Asia, there is also the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League which can offer a platform for preferred actions. These organisations should send envoys to highlight at least the special concerns of the right to education of girls. Altogether, they can offer a Multi-Angular, Multi-Stakeholder Platform to advocate for the rights of women and girls.
While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) which Cambodia will chair in 2022 is geographically distant from Afghanistan, there is an entry point for engagement through its shifting focus to the Indo-Pacific Outlook which can also cover humanitarian assistance for countries in need of help in the vicinity.
Lastly, the world's religious leaders, both Islamic and other denominations, should converge strongly to call for girls' access to education. There is a key need for connectivity with the younger Taliban leaders who are more open-minded and do not wish to be identified with those with a violent past. A message to be echoed regionally and globally is that girls' education is not only compatible with Islam but also a well-recognised right and preferred practice in countries with large and small Muslim communities without discrimination.
Professor of law at Chulalongkorn University
Vitit Muntarbhorn is professor emeritus at the Law Faculty, Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN in a various positions, including as UN Special Rapporteur, UN Independent Expert and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on human rights.