23 Jan Uneducating the Girls and Women of Afghanistan
[Jenna M Robinson has worked at a number of leading international law firms and is now a postgraduate candidate of Public International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.]
Most of you reading this will likely have been to university. You will be a woman or you will have studied alongside women. You will be passionate about learning. You will appreciate that the promise of furthering your education in a university setting will have inspired you to work hard throughout your lives and continues to inspire your daughters.
In a devastating twist in the Taliban’s tragic tale of the new Afghanistan, in December 2022 the Taliban-run higher education ministry suspended access to universities by female students until further notice. This is the latest in a series of steps taken by the Taliban-run administration to restrict the educational opportunities open to the girls and women of Afghanistan contrary to internationally recognised rights to education and non-discrimination.
The Taliban were ousted from their rule of Afghanistan in the early months of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, the military campaign that began in 2001 as part of the Global War on Terror in response to the September 11 attacks by Taliban-harboured Al-Qaeda. Since then, despite the ongoing turmoil within the country, both access to education and the standard of it had continued to improve, particularly for girls and women. In its recent report, UNESCO reported that the number of girls in primary school increased from almost zero in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2018. The number of girls in higher education increased from around 5,000 in 2001 to around 90,000 in 2018. The female literacy rate almost doubled in a decade, from 17 per cent in 2011 to 30 per cent in 2018. Although significant challenges remained for ensuring access to education to the girls and women of Afghanistan, these figures showed encouraging progress.
However, since the Taliban regained control of the country following the US’s tumultuous withdrawal in 2021, it has taken steps to increasingly constrict women’s basic rights and, in particular, their access to education. The report tabled at the UN Security Council’s meeting on 20 December 2022, ironically the same day as the Taliban’s recent edict banning women from university education, states that under the regime women’s and girls’ enjoyment of their basic rights and freedoms remains particularly constricted. Access to secondary education remains suspended for most girls. In 2022, the Taliban-led administration restricted the courses that women could study at university, with subjects such as veterinary science, economics, engineering and agriculture being banned. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has correctly reiterated that “the denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls, but will have a devastating impact on the country’s future”.
Denying girls and women access to education is a clear breach of nationally and internationally recognised rights to education and non-discrimination. At a national level, the right to education for all citizens of Afghanistan was guaranteed in Articles 43 to 44 of Afghanistan’s Constitution adopted in 2004 and was reinforced in the specific Education Law of 2008. It is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and has been recognised in a number of treaties, including in Articles 13 to 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, Articles 28 to 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 and Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1979, which have all been ratified by Afghanistan.
So what can be done? The options are limited. For starters, any sort of UN-backed intervention on humanitarian grounds to topple the Taliban regime is unrealistic and inconceivable as the US and its supporters still recover from their Afghan incursion and try to face up to the bloody aftermath since their chaotic withdrawal.
One positive step is that the UN continues to send a strong message of opposing Taliban rule through the UN Credentials Committee’s postponement of recognising the credentials submitted by the Taliban to represent Afghanistan. Although it is difficult to obtain an understanding in how the committee reaches its decisions, as it does not tend to provide details of its decisions and discussions of its matters in public are rare, it is understood that the Taliban’s lack of respect for human rights, particularly the right to education and discrimination against women and girls, contribute to the decision.
The international community as a whole should continue to wield the powerful tool of outcasting to undermine Taliban rule. Alongside the steps being taken by the UN Credentials Committee, states as well as other international bodies, NGOs and investors can do this by refusing to recognise the Taliban as legitimate rulers of the country and should continue to predicate external investment, aid and the weakening of sanctions on the Taliban reinstating access to all levels of education to women and girls without discrimination.
However, the international community cannot allow the Taliban to wield female access to education as a bargaining chip with no evidence of change, as has been the case to date. The Taliban have shown a tendency to pay mere lip service to protecting these rights and have made only perfunctory efforts, citing dubious reasons such as restricting education until a “safe learning environment” could be created. At a wider level, the effectiveness of the international community’s efforts to outcast the Taliban’s rule risks being undermined by some states, including Pakistan and China, reportedly offering assistance without mandating these human rights requirements. This weakening of the international community’s tool of outcasting puts the existing international legal order as whole in jeopardy.
But the world cannot turn its back. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. There are glimmers of hope. A country cannot grow or thrive if it shuts out half of its population. We live in a significantly more connected world than during the Taliban’s prior reign. Afghanistan has a generation of women who have been through an education system. Some are now working abroad as powerful advocates of change. Other women and girls who remain in Afghanistan and have tasted the joys and freedoms of education are bravely protesting against the oppressive Taliban rule. The international community must not tire in its efforts. It must work together using all tools available to it to support the silenced women and girls of Afghanistan.