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Reimagining Girls’ Education: Ways to Keep Girls Learning in Humanitarian Emergency Situations

“For girls and women stuck at home under the current Taliban regime, continued access to education can be a lifeline to the outside world. Because when something is stripped from you, that passion is accelerated tenfold.”

Sanam Wahidi, Vice President of the Afghan Women’s Organisation Victoria

In August 2021, the Taliban took the capital of Afghanistan, and with it many opportunities for girls’ and women’s education. Over three months later, Afghan girls are still stuck at home, waiting for the Taliban plan to re-enter schools, while boys have since been allowed to return to their classes.

In this and other humanitarian emergency situations, girls often lose access to equal education as boys. And this carries long-term repercussions to girls’ learning outcomes and future opportunities. Therefore, it is critical to consider mechanisms to ensure equitable and gender-responsive education during the planning of emergency preparedness, response, or recovery activities, as outlined by this recent UNICEF report.

We spoke with a humanitarian expert and advocate for Afghan women and girls to learn about emergency situations inhibiting girls’ access to education, and potential on and offline solutions to supporting their continued learning.

Meet the Expert: Sanam Wahidi

Sanam Wahidi

Sanam Wahidi, Vice President of the Afghan Women’s Organisation

Sanam Wahidi is the Vice President of the Afghan Women’s Organisation Victoria and a humanitarian research expert. The Afghan Women’s Organisation Victoria works to promote equality and women’s rights both within the Afghan community and more broadly.

In her work, Wahidi strives to foster and build a society and environment that recognizes girls’ and women’s rights and enables Afghan women’s access to services, empowerment, and information.

Q & A with Wahidi on Ways to Keep Girls Learning in Humanitarian and Emergency Crises Given recent events, what is the current trajectory for girls’ education in Afghanistan?

Wahidi: The situation remains the same as last month and the month before. Since the Taliban regime has entered power and announced that girls are effectively banned from education, it has been a difficult time for Afghan women and girls.

As the vice president of the Afghan Women’s Organisation I have partners working on the ground with high school and university students in Afghanistan and they say the situation has not changed since the announcement was issued. They are still quite in the dark of what their education endeavors look like and given this, it is incredibly difficult to navigate how the situation will pan out in the future.

As many people are aware, the Taliban have not changed their core values despite their access to PR and technology that allow them to engage and interact with the more progressively inclined world. They are still employing draconian and cruel ideology on people despite any ambiguous rhetoric or implications they are seeking alternative options. As an Afghan myself, it does not seem like things will change much in this regard. Before the Taliban took Kabul, what factors generally influenced Afghan families’ decision regarding sending boys or girls to school?

Wahidi: Afghanistan was meaningfully progressing prior to the Taliban regime taking power.

Families became increasingly aware of the importance of education and girls’ access to and involvement in education. We were seeing an increase in girls’ presence in the education sectors. Actually, we saw an increase in participants from girls and boys alike, prior to the Taliban coming into power.

That being said, Afghanistan was still facing a deeply cleaved social and political environment. Lack of access to education was largely a mix of social dichotomies and poverty. Many people were struggling with security and livelihood issues, largely due to poverty, which in turn hindered access for families and children to education.

There is also the added insecurity of target bombing and attack on schools and education sectors. For example, in one instance a school bus was targeted. These were realities families had to face, and they didn’t want to risk their children’s lives.

Then there was a variety of social stigmas that are still impacting girls’ access to education, both present in Afghanistan and globally. In Afghanistan, stigmas could include such ideas as girls don’t need education or the stigma that education may inhibit their potential to find a boyfriend or various other social stigmas in Afghan culture. So these were present in influencing boys’ and girls’ educational opportunities before the Taliban regime.

Overall though, the vast majority of people unable to pursue educational opportunities were deprived of schooling due to extreme poverty.

At an early age, many Afghan children are forced to bear the economic burden of households. For instance, they may be forced to forgo schooling in order to sell fruit or other small items. This is particularly pertinent in boys as well because of an ongoing war that usually left families with no father figure and burden placed on them. And of course, it was apparent in girls’ lives as well. In times of crisis, what are critical components influencing gender-inclusive access to education? Why do these matter?

Wahidi: There are a wide array of factors that influence gender-inclusive access to education. But ultimately it comes down to policy. And in the case of Afghanistan, the draconian and brutal policies of the Taliban regime.

The inhibition of girls’ access to education definitely comes down to social, cultural, and political gender dimensions that have always been inherent in Afghanistan and also across the world. There is a gendered dichotomy that compels women to take on primarily caregiving and unpaid work roles, and this impacts how they are seen in society. It also impacts the way that the Taliban see them as secondary citizens.

In times of crisis, policies are important.

It is then also important to take note of the ingrained gender dimensions and theoretical components we discussed that were etched into society prior to the Taliban. Issues like this that have persisted and not been eradicated or entirely addressed through effective policy means and measures are then in times of crises exacerbated.

Policy from a ground level is really important to bring shifts in societal perspective and societal implications such as increased poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to schooling. We need to work from not only top-down with policy but also bottom-up. And it is important to utilize strategies to address critical components affecting larger issues so that in times of crisis they can be better secured. From your work, what is one method that has proven effective in boosting community engagement that can bolster girls’ participation in educational opportunities? Could this be applied elsewhere?

Wahidi: Each situation is quite subjective. What we have tried and what I found is having meaningful conversations with parents and families can be very effective. This has worked not only in Afghanistan, but can also be used to address a wide variety of issues and social dilemmas diaspora communities also face, such as Afghan or Muslim communities living in Australia or America, or for other cultural and linguistically diverse communities.

It is important in having these conversations to understand how to break barriers.

In Afghan families, the most important figure of the household is the father. If you can speak with them and help them understand the importance of education and their children’s engagement within the community—this can be very useful. That being said, this process takes time and is not always effective given potential differences in ideologies and cultural values.

To have meaningful conversations within the community and within families, there is the matter of building rapport and having trust with those families. Often, it is difficult for foreign aid workers to come into Afghanistan and have them try to enact diplomacy and change because of this disconnect.

And we’ve seen the results of that, for example, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. It is critical to employ the use of culturally appropriate intervention in engagement in helping families understand how important girls’ participation in education and other opportunities is.

Our organization has a literacy center in Kabul that provides services to girls’ learning. Sometimes girls right now, and even prior to the Taliban regime, have had to hide pursuing learning behind their parents’ back in order to receive education. So this is a testament to the social stigmas and implications that some of the gender dimensions have on the real lives of girls and women. What role has technology played in community engagement and helping you support girls’ and women’s access to education in Afghanistan?

Wahidi: Technology has been critical to our work, particularly in connecting with girls and women in the community. It enables us to connect and reach them even at a distance and particularly in the current situation. Much of the time, for us, one of the only ways to get into contact with them is through technology.

In a broader sense, having technology enables girls and women to have access to the outside world. And this has been one of the main driving factors in increasing girls’ awareness of and access to educational opportunities. Girls and women can go online and see what is happening elsewhere and what is available. They are aware now of what their rights are, what education means, and what opportunities are there for them.

At our organization, we do recognize that some people do not have access to technology, so we have partners on the ground working in communities that provide a bridge for communication to those without technology. We are talking not only with them directly through digital communications but also have members on the ground there as well.

We have also still been continuing our literacy program even in the current situation. For girls and women stuck at home under the current Taliban regime, continued access to education can be a lifeline to the outside world. Because when something is stripped from you, that passion is accelerated tenfold. Are there any policy recommendations or pragmatic steps state or non-state actors can take to better support girls’ access to educational opportunities?

Wahidi: Although we are living in a highly globalized world and nonstate actors have an influence on policy, that doesn’t dismiss the significance states themselves have in directing that policy.

States should allocate more funding towards addressing social stigma related to girls’ access to education. This can include things like supporting health issues and considerations that might deter women and girls from going to school and often functions as one factor that hinders girls’ education.

It is also important to address communal problems by piloting inclusive community programs and workshops so that there can be direct interaction with families in helping to combat the stigma of not sending girls to school. And then, of course, is the need to address the economic burden influencing many families’ educational decisions.

And this issue is present not only in Afghanistan but also can be seen in communities in America and Europe. For families anywhere struggling with financial aspects and security, many children don’t go to school because they have other commitments tied to providing economically for the family. Or their educational opportunities can also be influenced by other similar and related social stigma surrounding education and gender.

Therefore, allocating funding and piloting projects on the ground and in the community is key to addressing this, generally speaking.

In Afghanistan, the situation is currently much more complex. Looking at it now with the Taliban regime in power and their stubbornness in not wanting to enact in their terms “progressive and Western ideologies,” I would definitely recommend the intervention of influential state actors.

And by this I do not mean in the private affairs of Afghanistan—trying to enact Western ideologies has not been effective as we know. But it is important to learn from those mistakes, and for the U.S. and neighboring states to tell the Taliban of the importance of education for women and girls.

The status of females is directly correlated with access to education. And females’ access to education will not only improve their lives and the progression of society but is also an important factor in addressing larger global issues such as climate change.

When girls have access to education and are able to meaningfully contribute to society, this results in a decrease in population size, and rather than doing unpaid work, women are contributing to paid work labor pools and their own lives, which can have far-reaching implications to addressing climate change. This demonstrates that girls’ education has far wider impacts than typical social implications.

Other than crafting effective policy, economically funding programs, and pressuring the Taliban regime, I also would really recommend non-state actor involvement if the Taliban continue inhibiting the education sector.

Currently, a vast majority of schools in Afghanistan are closed to girls. Public schools are closed because teachers and lecturers said that they will not teach unless boys and girls can sit in one class. However, private education has continued, and we have sponsored many of the girls in our program to attend these schools, that function by allowing boys to attend class from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., while girls attend from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

There are a lot of barriers girls and women face in education, so I really recommend that large organizations struggling to be involved given the current situations support small organizations active on the ground, like ours.

We have not stopped our project and have been able to pilot programs aiding educational opportunities for girls and women. While we are small compared to organizations like UNICEF, the Red Cross, and Save the Children, we are a great example of a successful program. We have had lots of participation in light of recent events—more than the last five years—with girls and women coming to classes, hiding of course, and wanting to gain literacy.

So I recommend that states and non-state actors support pilot programs for women and girls, and support so many educated Afghans and teachers who are deprived of their work and ability to meaningfully contribute due to the Taliban regime.
If the Taliban do not want education, we can try to pressure as much as we want, but the situation is not really going to change.

It is a matter of taking education for girls and women into our own hands, and for other states and people to fund projects and programs enabling these programs for the prosperity of Afghanistan as well as the security of the region and world.

Furthermore, if we enable the legitimacy of the Taliban, we will not see a change in security but will instead further legitimize other radical organizations.

So, I implore the governments and external states to act now. As we know, the implications of not allowing girls’ access to education will have immense ramifications more globally both in the immediate and far future.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.