A child’s enthusiasm is contagious and uplifting. It’s a sight to cherish, and impossible to witness without smiling back. Ever since I visited Afghanistan earlier this year, a joyful moment of hope like this has accompanied me.
As much as it raised my hopes for Afghanistan’s future, a certain foreboding raged in its shadow.
In March, I visited a remote rural village in northeastern Afghanistan with colleagues from Unicef. There the village elders led us into a small room. It was packed with 67 young girls from the local community sitting on rugs – many had walked miles to get there.
We attended one of the hundreds of Unicef-supported community-based education courses that are springing up across Afghanistan. These centers, which give many girls their first formal education, are oases of hope.
Inside, girls between the ages of four and twelve took turns telling us how much learning means to them. They beamed as they spoke about their daily lessons and their aspirations for the future – a reflection of the hopes of many young schoolgirls in Ireland.
Their joy at having the world open before them could not be contained. You could see that they were proud of themselves and their little school. And in the midst of a country in crisis and upheaval, they were safe, learning, and perhaps beginning to dream for the first time.
Every child has a right to education. And at Unicef, we have long seen the passion and demand of boys and girls across Afghanistan to exercise this fundamental right. Our polls show that 92 percent of girls are excited about the opening of schools and 91 percent believe that education is essential for all children.
Afghanistan’s education system has been devastated by more than four decades of conflict, insecurity and natural disasters. And now, a year after the Taliban seized power, life and the educational landscape in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate.
For many children in the country, especially girls in rural areas, even completing primary school is a major challenge. To ensure that as many children as possible have access to primary education, UNICEF teams plan to nearly double the number of community education centers we support from 9,800 to over 17,000 by the end of the year.
When I think of the 17,000 centers, many just like the one I visited, each bringing the joy of learning to some of the most remote and vulnerable children, I really glimpse a hopeful future for Afghanistan .
However, as we celebrate a year since the Taliban takeover, we must also reflect on the dark shadow that has haunted me ever since I walked into that small classroom.
Since the Taliban returned to power, seventh through twelfth grade girls – essentially adolescent girls of secondary school age – have been barred from returning to school. A whole generation of girls has not claimed the right to an education for a year. With each passing day, the Taliban continue to deny girls the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to build their future.
This is a tragedy for the girls themselves and we have no idea when they will be allowed to return. Aside from being denied their basic rights, when a girl is excluded from education she is denied the skills she needs to build a dignified and prosperous future for herself. And this, in turn, severely limits the future of everyone in Afghanistan.
In fact, Unicef estimates that $500 million will be lost this and every year when girls don’t finish high school and women don’t work. This corresponds to 2.5 percent of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product). And these financial costs don’t even take into account the huge indirect costs of girls not being educated and women engaging in fields like education, health, business and civic participation.
After all, for the single elementary school girls I’ve met, denial of their right to secondary education means they’re staring at a cliff. Their hopes of taking their learning beyond their community-based learning centers are dashed. As an international community, we cannot let this continue. That’s one of the reasons why Unicef’s current work program in Afghanistan is the largest we’ve ever attempted in a single country.
Our teams are not giving up on the millions of girls in Afghanistan whose voices are being silenced. We hear them and we will not stop fighting for their rights until all children in Afghanistan go to school.
Peter Power is Chief Executive of Unicef Ireland.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/a-year-on-from-the-talibans-takeover-of-afghanistan-educating-afghan-girls-remains-a-cause-worth-fighting-for-41911499.html A year after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, education for Afghan girls remains a cause worth fighting for