Denying Access to Education Affects People, Nations and the World : the Case of Afghan Women

The reality of the lives of Afghan women and their future prospects warrants some serious reflection. Their story is applicable to any community in the world : education is key, and the education of women is particularly critical for families, social cohesion, poverty alleviation, prevention of crime and violence, as well as for economic growth and peace.

The Taliban's hard line on gender discrimination is stronger today than at any time since their ouster from power in 2001. The regime remains rooted in an extreme interpretation of Islamic law (sharia) and systematically excludes women and girls from public life. Despite initial promises to allow women to exercise their rights under sharia law – including the right to work and study – equal access to education and employment is widely denied, as well as basic rights to healthcare, justice, housing, and food security.

History of women’s education: a resolve to isolate

It was not until the 19th century that the issue of women's education was addressed.

The inferior status of women was then the legacy of a lengthy period of male patriarchy. In this context, their fate was shaped by domestic confinement, gender segregation, male domination and religious interpretations.

Since then, prominent scholars and proponents of change have advocated for women's right to education. The arguments vary: for some, the ultimate goal is to free women from illiteracy so that they can educate their children. However, they caution that access to higher education may exacerbate women's alleged innate ability to manipulate and deceive men. Other, more liberal views emphasize the importance of women's education as a key factor in social and cultural development.

The ban on girls’ right to education has no religious justification

The Taliban's recent ban on girls' education clearly contradicts Islamic doctrine and is totally unacceptable. There is no reference in the Quran or its prophetic verses that legitimizes a denial of education based on gender. On the contrary, the Quran urges all Muslims to acquire knowledge regardless of their gender. It also calls on all Muslims to work to improve their communities, support each other and fight poverty.

Many experts believe that the Taliban leader's reluctance to educate girls is rather a consequence of patriarchal traditions deeply rooted in the Afghan tribal system. This ancestral domination has led to the marginalization of women and the denial of their basic human rights.

Lack of education impacts individuals and society

Education is more than the ability to read and write. It is a process of acquiring knowledge, skills and values that enable individuals to make informed decisions to lead meaningful lives and to contribute to the social, economic, and political well-being of their families and communities. Without an educated population, no society can develop and prosper.

Denying access to education has consequences: illiteracy, and in particular female illiteracy, results in increased infant mortality, uncontrolled fertility, and population growth. It impedes the acquisition of the skills needed for labor force participation as well as for self-defense, thus perpetuating the oppression of women. The lack of education exacerbates poverty and promotes exploitation, including sweatshop labor, prostitution, and child marriage. To make a living, women and girls are often compelled to take on incredibly dangerous jobs, usually in unsafe neighborhoods with high crime rates.

What happens when women have access to education?

Well educated girls are less likely to marry young and are better equipped to make wise choices to lead healthy and productive lives. They earn higher incomes and can build better futures for themselves and their families. Educating girls helps build stronger economies and represents a real investment in the global economy. The World Bank estimated that by excluding women from the workforce, countries lose between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lifetime productivity and earnings. Besides boosting economies, educating girls also helps communities recover faster from war and conflict through greater resilience, stability and social cohesion.

Long term – Could natural resources help fund education in Afghanistan?

The answer is possibly. The country is rich in resources such as copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earths, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulfur, travertine, gypsum and marble. Together, these resources are valued at over $1 trillion.

However, continuous conflict, political instability due in part to an ancient feudal system, widespread corruption, poor infrastructure, and a hostile business environment hamper private sector development.  As a result, the country ranks among the poorest in the world. Today, nearly 90% of Afghans live below the $2 a day poverty line. The country's GDP and GDP per capita are among the lowest in the world. In addition, the GDP per capita has dropped from $553 in December 2020 to $426 in December 2021.

A path to move Afghanistan into the 21st century

Here are some of the measures recommended by Sima Samar, human rights activist, former Afghan Minister of Women's Affairs (2001-2003) and member of the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board:

What Afghanistan needs is lasting peace, not a "quick fix".

It needs a robust and functioning government with centralized control that can provide for the basic needs of its people, including education and health services.

It also needs to ensure fair and equal access to justice for all, by establishing a functioning rule of law that fights widespread corruption.

Finally, and most importantly, the upholding of human rights in the country must remain non-negotiable. The universal principles of human rights, such as the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women, must be recognized and respected.

Final thoughts

Promoting education around the world is essential to eradicating poverty, exclusion and violence. Education will help improve health, reduce excessive birth rates, increase economic growth, promote lasting peace, and empower future generations to dream of a better future.

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