UN Recommits to Afghan Women and Girls’ Education
By U.N. Writers
“It has been a year of increasing disrespect for their right to live free and equal lives, denying them opportunity to livelihoods, access to health care and education, and escape from situations of violence,” said Sima Bahous, Executive Director at UN Women.
Ms. Bahous outlined how the Taliban’s “meticulously constructed policies of inequality” have set Afghanistan apart from the rest of the international community, wiping out decades of progress on gender equality and women’s rights in mere months.
‘Terrible act of self-sabotage’
Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school and effectively barred from political participation, as the Taliban has an all-male cabinet and there is no Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Afghan women are now mostly restricted from working outside the home, they must cover their faces in public, and they have to be accompanied by a male chaperone when they travel. Furthermore, they continue to be subjected to multiple forms of gender-based violence.
“This deliberate slew of measures of discrimination against Afghanistan’s women and girls is also a terrible act of self-sabotage for a country experiencing huge challenges, including from climate-related and natural disasters to exposure to global economic headwinds that leave some 25 million Afghan people in poverty and many hungry,” she said.
Afghanistan remains in the grip of a deep economic and humanitarian crisis, as the head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Natalia Kanem, pointed out.
Lives at risk
Soaring food and fuel prices – worsened by a drought and the war in Ukraine – mean that roughly 95 per cent of the population, and nearly all female-headed households, do not get enough to eat.
Ms. Kanem said keeping girls out of secondary school not only violates their right to education and prevents them from realizing their full potential, it but also puts them at increased risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, violence and abuse.
“The breakdown of the health system has compromised women and girls’ access to reproductive health services, including maternal health care, particularly for the more than nine million people living in remote areas of the country. For the estimated 24,000 women who give birth each month in hard-to-reach areas, childbirth can, in effect, be a death sentence,” she said.
Afghanistan was already struggling with education even before the Taliban takeover last August, as more than four million children were already out of school, 60 per cent of them girls.
Barring girls from attending secondary school also has a monetary cost, according to a new analysis by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It shows that the country loses 2.5 per cent of its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) because of the decision.
UNICEF said the Afghan economy would gain at least $5.4 billion if the current cohort of three million girls were to complete secondary school and join the workforce.
True potential denied
The estimates do not take into account the non-financial impacts of denying girls access to education, which include future shortages of women teachers, doctors and nurses, as well as increasing health costs related to adolescent pregnancy.
Broader benefits of education are also excluded, such as overall educational attainment, reduced child marriage and reduced infant mortality.
The analysis indicates that Afghanistan will be unable to regain the GDP lost during the transition and reach its true potential productivity without fulfilling girls’ rights to access and complete secondary school education.
“The decision on March 23, not to allow girls back to secondary school was shocking and deeply disappointing,” said Dr. Mohamed Ayoya, the UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.
“UNICEF wants to see every girl and boy across Afghanistan in school and learning,” he added. “We will not stop advocating until that goal is achieved. Not only is education a right for every child, it is the foundation for future growth in Afghanistan.”
Women, peace and development
The United Nations has repeatedly stressed its commitment to continue delivering in Afghanistan, and advocating for women and girls there.
Ms. Bahous, the UN Women chief, underlined how excluding women from all aspects of life robs the population of half its talent and energies.
She urged the de facto authorities to open schools for all girls, remove constraints on women’s employment and participation in politics, and revoke all decisions and policies that strip women of their rights.
“Without the full participation of women and girls in all aspects of public life, there is little chance of achieving lasting peace, stability, and economic development,” she stated.
Meanwhile, her agency is scaling up the provision of life-saving services “for women, by women” to meet the overwhelming needs, while also supporting women-led businesses and employment opportunities across all sectors.
“One year on, with women’s visibility so diminished and rights so severely impacted, it is vital to direct targeted, substantial, and systematic funding to address and reverse this situation and to facilitate women’s meaningful participation in all stakeholder engagement on Afghanistan, including in delegations that meet with Taliban officials,” she said.
Stepping up operations
UNFPA has stepped up its presence across Afghanistan and is working with national partners to scale-up provision of sexual and reproductive health services – again, for women, by women – including in remote areas.
The agency reached more than 4.3 million people over the past year and distributed essential medicines and supplies to hospitals, as well as menstrual hygiene supplies to countless women and girls.
Ms. Kanem added that as winter approaches amid rising needs, UNFPA are already providing cooking utensils and blankets to desperate people, and stands ready to do more.
“As the world faces multiple, overlapping crises, we must not forget the women and girls of Afghanistan. When women’s and girls’ basic rights are denied, we are all diminished,” she said.
“We must work together, united in our common and firm belief that there can be no durable peace, recovery or stability for Afghanistan unless women’s and girls’ basic human rights to education, to participate in public life and to access services vital to their health, dignity and well-being, are respected and protected”.
Image: UNICEF/Mohammad Haya Burhan