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Afghanistan: Taliban’s backtrack on school re-opening for girls irreversibly impacts their future

Schoolgirls in Afghanistan told Amnesty International that the Taliban’s backtrack on reopening schools for girls has left them “shattered” and “traumatized”.

On 23 March, female students of secondary schools were returning to classrooms for the first time in seven months. While many girls were waiting to start their lessons, at 9 a.m. the Taliban leadership announced it had decided to keep girls’ schools closed ‘until school uniforms are designed in accordance with the Afghan customs, culture, and Sharia and all these girls were told to immediately leave the schools.

Denying girls the right to education will have a far-reaching impact on Afghanistan’s prospects of social rebuilding and economic growth

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director

“The Taliban’s citing of Sharia and Afghan culture is an old trick designed to deny women and girls their rights. It is a completely unacceptable justification for their devastating U-turn this week, which is a blatant violation of the right to education and casts a shadow over the futures of millions of Afghan girls. Denying girls the right to education will have a far-reaching impact on Afghanistan’s prospects of social rebuilding and economic growth,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director.

“Amnesty International is calling on the international community to make women’s and girls’ rights to education a red line during negotiations with the Taliban de-facto authorities. The Taliban must, without further delay, allow girls of all ages to attend school and stop using cynical pretexts to further its discriminatory agenda.”

‘We were all shattered’

Students, teachers, school principals and women activists in Afghanistan were left devastated when within hours of reaching schools they were informed about Taliban’s new order and were once again facing the reality of being denied education.

Since taking over Afghanistan seven months ago, the Taliban has made several commitments to respect girls’ right to education. The Taliban de-facto Ministry of Education circulated a statement on 20 March, announcing that all schools would re-open after the winter break on 23 March. However, secondary schools for girls remained closed for girls. In Herat province secondary schools were open only for two days and on the third day, female students were told that schools shall remain closed for them.

17-year-old Nadia is a Grade 12 student in Badakshan province. On 24 March, she told Amnesty International: “I was extremely excited. I went to school with huge hopes. I met my classmates and teachers. Everyone was happy. Everyone was excited for the start of the classes. However, after few minutes, our principal came and told us that we need to leave. She was ordered to shut down the girls’ schools. We were all shattered. Some started crying, some stood silent. As much as I did not want to leave the school, I forced myself to move towards the exit gate. It broke my heart to once again leave the school not knowing if I will ever be allowed to return.”

Since 23 March, residents, students, women’s rights activists in Kabul, Nangarhar, Badakhshan have held several protests demanding the Taliban to immediately open secondary schools for girls. On Saturday, several young women took to the streets in Kabul. In verified videos accessed by Amnesty, women activists were seen warning that this will lead to the schoolgirls’ loss of talent as well as that their isolation will mean trauma and no future.

‘We showed our pen to the Taliban and told them education is our right. We continued chanting we want to learn.’

Various high schools across the city of Kabul reported that girls had returned to campuses but were quickly ordered to return to their homes. Nakisa, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student in Kabul was one of those who went to school on 23 March. She said: “Despite all the fear and uncertainty, I went to school. I was hoping I would be allowed to start my classes but at 9 am, some men entered our school premises and brought the letter from Ministry of Education. In the past, no men were allowed to enter our school without prior coordination with management. However yesterday, the Taliban entered without permission and asked our principal to send all girls back home and shut down the school. She started crying.”

Nakisa told Amnesty International how students had bravely protested the U-turn, which resulted in physical abuse from Taliban authorities. “We started protesting […] We showed our pens to the Taliban and told them education is our right. We continued chanting; we want to learn. They started abusing us and pushing us to stop the protest. They also threatened our school principal for provoking us to protest. It was disrespectful and heartbreaking to see these militant men disrespecting a senior leader of our school”

The bravery of the girls and women who continue to protest, demanding their right to education and a better future, is humbling. They are fighting for hope, and the international community must not abandon them at this critical time

Yamini Mishra

“The bravery of the girls and women who continue to protest, demanding their right to education and a better future, is humbling. They are fighting for hope, and the international community must not abandon them at this critical time,” said Yamini Mishra.

Nawida Khorasani, a women’s rights activist, called on the international community to seek accountability from the Taliban to follow through on the assurances it has been making on women’s rights. “The Taliban’s latest action is a clear breach of the commitments it made on womens’ rights, and the international community must hold it to account.”
The Taliban appear to be slowly and steadily returning to the repressive policies of the 1990s, when all girls’ schools were banned, and women were not allowed to appear in public.

“The right to education is a fundamental human right, which the Taliban – as the de facto authorities of Afghanistan – are duty-bound to uphold,” said Yamini Mishra. “The policies currently being pursued by the Taliban are discriminatory, unjust and violate international law.”