NEW YORK – It is a sad reality that in many developing countries, education is not an option for children. A lack of teachers, school supplies, or even schools themselves bars children all over the world from this basic right that children in wealthy countries take for granted. But an even sadder reality is the fact that even when resources and will align, and school could be a possibility, children, especially girls, are barred from education because of cultural or traditional beliefs.
In Afghanistan, this is very much the case. Girls attending school are frequently threatened or attacked simply for exercising their basic right to education. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other extremist organizations operating within the country have done everything within their power to ensure that schools remain closed to girls. And Afghanistan’s girls continue to thwart them.
One extreme example of this came at the Mirwais Mena School, which was founded in 2004 by through donations from the United Nations and Japanese government. Students at the girls’ school in Kandahar face unique risks, situated as they are in the heart of the Taliban movement. On November 12, 2008, three men mutilated students on their way to school by spraying acid on their faces and backs.
The school, and the nation, were outraged. President Hamid Karzai went so far as seeking the death penalty for those responsible. But the girls of the Mirwais Mena School would not be intimidated. After closing for a week, the school reopened – with all the girls who had been victimized in attendance.
This was not the first such attack on a school for girls. The Afghan Education Ministry reports that at least 478 schools have been damaged or destroyed by fires, gas attacks, and other acts of violence. Despite these threats, girls continue to attend school, bravely and publicly.
A decade after the United States led invasion of Afghanistan, the country faces intimidating problems. Outside of the capital city of Kabul, there is little central government. The Taliban remains active in the southern part of the country, where it works freely with extremists in Pakistan. A recent suicide attacks on a Kabul hotel and the assassination of Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Karzai, show that violence remains an option for those opposing the nation’s democratic government.
Despite all of this, American intervention in Afghanistan has produced at least one real, tangible, and distinctly positive effect; education. When the Taliban controlled the country in 2000, about one million Afghan children went to school. No girls were legally educated. In 2009, about 7 million students attend school; 2.6 million of whom are girls. This is hardly equitable; but it is a start.
“Afghanistan needs to increase school enrolment with a focus on increasing the attendance rate of girls,” says the most recent UN Millennium Development Goal Report on Afghanistan. It also points out that working towards gender equality in schools is a good way to ensure success for children as they grow into adults, and rebuilding faith in the Afghan education system.“It is critical that access to education and the quality of education are addressed simultaneously,” the report continues.“Bothare key for rebuilding the education sector and gaining the confidence of parents that the system candeliver and that it is worthwhile to send their children to school.”
Dexter Filkins is an American journalist who has worked extensively in Afghanistan. His Pulitzer prize winning book The Forever War describes the disturbing state of instability and dysfunction in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the plight of those caught in the crosshairs of history there.
He made the story of the Mirwais Mena School attack known in the West, and raised funds to provide medical treatment for the victims, and a school bus to shield them from future attacks. In an article written one year after the incident in the New York Times, Filkins explained why protecting these girls, and guaranteeing them the right to an education was so important.
Afghan girls live their lives in reverse. Behind the school’s walls, the girls of Afghanistan comport themselves with confidence and self-possession. They are alive, alert and literate; they run, jump and laugh out loud. They confront male visitors, point their fingers, ask questions.They do everything, in other words, that an adult Afghan woman, just outside the school’s walls, could never imagine.
Schools do not only offer Afghan girls the essential tools that they need to get ahead in life. They do not only provide a foundation for intellectual exploration and academic curiosity. They provide a safe haven for young girls to be free to behave as they would like. It is this liberation that will one day help these girls overcome the oppression they experience at the hands of terrorists. And their insistence on remaining in school, in spite of all threats and abuses, is a sign that this is a fight that the terrorists cannot win.