Until Malala Yousafzai’s story became well-known, I doubt many people considered what it means to be young and female and seeking an education in a conflict-ridden society that has a bias against the education of girls. Recently I read about a teacher from Afghanistan, Nahida, and I realised that in another part of the world a girl’s education is not a given. Nahida is a school principal for a girls school in Kabul. She has persevered through many difficulties in making sure the education of girls in Kabul matters. Her experiences also reveal that when a country is conflict-ridden for three decades, the people who suffer the most are girls and the women who teach them.
If we focus on Afghanistan alone, Nahida’s story brings to light the interconnectedness of politics, security and education. She points out that
“In the last period of time when Mujahidin came to power, different portions of Mujahidin started fighting in Kabul and other provinces. Schools closed because of security, especially girls schools. Schools become a target for Mujahidin. Slowly when stability came to Afghanistan and Kabul for me it was priority to encourage girls and their families to come back to school. I gave the message to their families and asked them to send their daughters to school again.”
Nahida’s story is relevant when we consider the education of girls in other regions because girls living in the Arab States are at a greater disadvantage: the share of females in the out-of-school population is 60%, compared with 57% in South and West Asia and 54 % in sub-Saharan Africa.
A more gendered narrative reveals that girls education can still be sacrificed at the altar because of sexist ideas that reveal that women and girls do not matter. This is especially the case with the Taliban’s laws in Afghanistan. Nahida reveals that
“When the Taliban came to power, it was their policy to close all the schools for females. For me, it was difficult to go to school to teach. When I went to my school, the principal of the school was a Mullah and he didn’t allow me to enter the school and asked me after that not to come to school. But for the boys, school was open. When I understood the policy of Taliban was not to allow girls and female teachers to go to school, I started a home school for girls because families and their parents asked me to teach their daughters.”
Let’s consider some statistics from UNESCO’s EFA report related to education in Afghanistan and the Arab states:
- 175 million young people in low and lower middle income countries are unable to read a single sentence, of whom 61% are female. In South and West Asia, two out of three young people who cannot read are young women.
- Afghanistan has the highest level of gender disparity in primary education in the world with only 71 girls in primary school for every 100 boys. It is likely to remain very far from the Millennium Development Goal target of gender parity in primary education by 2015.
- No girls were in secondary school in 1999 in Afghanistan. By 2011, the female gross enrolment ratio rose to 34%, which meant there were only 55 girls in secondary school for every 100 boys.
- While almost 80% of the richest boys in urban areas were completing primary school in 2011, the same was true for only 4% of the poorest girls living in rural areas.
- In Iraq, not only has progress towards gender parity been slow, but poor, rural girls have not benefited. The lower secondary completion rate was 58% for rich urban boys and just 3% for poor rural girls in 2011. Safety remains an issue for girls’ schooling, particularly in areas of major instability and insecurity.
What do these numbers suggest about the education of girls? Beyond considering the role of the teacher, it seems that in societies where the girl child’s education is not taken seriously, a cultural shift needs to happen alongside the change in policies that recognise that the education of girls is central to the development of any country. Girls born in middle class homes (where both parents are usually educated) have chances of escaping the narrative however for poorer women and girls more needs to be done politically and socially.
Writing about the education of girls immediately invokes the position of boys. It matters for both boys and girls that girls should be treated equally and have access to the same education. Boys that do not grow up around girls whose minds and opinions matter become men who may interpret that as the default setting for women. An equal education is a good idea for both boys and girls.
Whenever the issue of gender equality comes up amongst the boys I teach there’s always the rolling of eyes and defensiveness. Boys have misunderstood gender equality: they have been duped into the idea that the equality of girls means that boys do not matter; that boys are the enemy that are the target when women and girls are being empowered. Boys need to be given a new narrative not only about their masculinity but also about femininity and an equal education with equal opportunities is central to making those changes.
I went to a girls school for 12 years of my life. My learning was never disrupted, not even by teacher strikes. I never had to contemplate whether my education mattered or not because whenever I went to school, I knew it mattered and it made me believe that I matter too. Apart from the criticism against girls’ schools, when we consider the global context, we need to prioritise the education of a girl child even more. Girls who stay in schools that function are more likely to make different decisions for their lives and these decisions are important for their families, communities and the rest of the world.