The Precarious Future of Female Education in Afghanistan

We talked to the director of a new documentary about a pioneering girls' school in Afghanistan, and the effect that the departure of Western forces will have on the country.

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Mar 19 2015, 2:20pm

All images are stills from 'What Tomorrow Brings'

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the education of girls was completely prohibited. In the areas they controlled, young women were forcibly taken out of schools and colleges, banned from all areas of employment (with the exception of the medical sector), and forbidden to leave the house without a male relative. Failure to comply with these strict regulations would result in public beatings. The implication being, if you were a woman your sole purpose was reduced to serving your husband, beyond which duties you were to be completely invisible, with your voice repressed into silence.

In 1998, the organization Physicians for Human Rights, which conducted a three-month qualitative and quantitative study on the area, commented: "The Taliban's edicts restricting women's rights have had a disastrous impact on Afghan women and girls' access to education. To PHR's knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment from attending school."

Fourteen years after the Taliban were driven from power following 9/11, what does a girl's education in Afghanistan look like today? The short answer is: a lot better. Since the regime crumbled, the government erected many of the schools that had been destroyed and millions of girls in Afghanistan now receive an education.

However, despite these efforts, less than half of Afghan girls attend school, and of those that do, many of them drop out due to child marriages, lack of skilled teachers, and poor facilities or unsafe buildings. As well as this, many people still find educated girls a political threat. Needless to say, knowledge is power and because of this, girls' schools are still frequently subject to bombings, water poisonings, gas attacks, and acid attacks.

The urgency of an education for girls in Afghanistan has never been more rife, with many schoolgirls risking their lives in order to receive one.

In March 2008, Afghan native Razia Jan opened the first girls' school to exist in the district of Deh'Sabz, a small, conservative region with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. A year later, filmmaker Beth Murphy began recording the school's progress for a documentary, What Tomorrow Brings, which is due to premiere at Human Rights Watch Film Festival this weekend.

"It was such an extraordinary thing, to think that Razia started a school for girls in a village that has never educated its daughters," says Murphy. "She never backed down. Without the support of the village elders, the school could not exist. When she first started going into the community, all they wanted her to do was to sit in the house with the women and drink tea. And she said, 'No. I'm not going to do that. I'm here to talk to you.' At first, their heads were down, they wouldn't even look at her. But her head was way up high, because she wanted to look them in the eye and say, 'You have to make a difference, you have to make a change.'"

Razia, at the school

When the school —Zabuli Education Center—first opened, there were barely enough girls to fill up the five classes. Today, the school teaches 21 classes and provides around 430 girls with free education, uniforms, shoes, and meals. "There will be girls who graduate but I think the real success is even more powerful than what the numbers say," says Murphy. "Mindsets are changing, which is bigger than any number of graduates. What the school environment provides is an opportunity for the girls to develop an appreciation for the fact that their opinions do have value. The undercurrent there is so strong for developing this culture that fosters self-respect and confidence."

An example of this can be seen in the film, when Razia gathers the schoolchildren around her in the classroom and tells them the story of Malala Yousafzai. "I got to meet her, and she was just like you: a teenage girl," she tells them.

"Why did they shoot her?" one girl asks.

"Because she spoke out and said, 'I have the right to study,'" Razia explains. "'I have the right to laugh, I have the right to play...' Nobody has the right to prevent a girl from attending school or getting educated. Studying is not a sin."

What the overwhelming success of the Zabuli Education Centre points to is a shift in opportunities for girls growing up in Afghanistan today. "I do think the school has acted as a blueprint. I think it's a real model for other communities. Everyone has come together to support this school and that's what makes it successful," says Murphy.

However, despite the recent progressions in girls' education in Afghanistan, there are growing fears that as the US military withdraws from the country, and the Afghan government seeks peace talks with the Taliban, this progress will grind to a halt.

"I think there's this idea that, as the Western forces leave, there's less protection for things like girls education," Murphy explains. "When you look at the West's involvement in Afghanistan since 2001, there aren't a lot of success stories to be told, but a big success story is what has happened with girls' education. There's been this sense that there's been a protective layer there. It's the uncertainty of it. That's why the film's called What Tomorrow Brings, because of the precariousness of the security situation in the country. People worry about what's going to happen."

Not only are people in Afghanistan anxious that the country will be left vulnerable to insurgents, but that the departure of troops will result in less funding for girls' schools. As Western forces withdraw, will international donors withdraw also? As the government enters peace talks, will women's rights be dismissed, as they have done in the past? It's difficult to know what the future holds.

"I'd like for people to have a real appreciation for what it takes to educate girls in the country, to really understand what the stakes are," says Murphy. "People like Razia, who really are the peacekeepers in the country, can't be abandoned. We have to stay and support people like her to secure the future of the country."

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