We Urgently Need to Support Girls’ Education in Afghanistan

19 November 2021, 0745 EST

Since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021, there have been growing calls by many Afghans, along with the international community, to protect the rights of women and girls. Questions remain about how Afghans want to see women’s rights protected. A notorious Afghan proverb often repeated by the Taliban during their prior period of rule states that that ‘women belong either in the home or in the grave.’ Yet our research shows that this sentiment is not shared by men and women in eastern Afghanistan. 

Questions remain about how Afghans want to see women’s rights protected

Many in the international community are working from the assumption that there are fundamental differences between the views of Afghan women and men and the international community. But our findings show, instead, surprising areas of commonality that can play an important role in supporting the international community — including governments, donors and peacebuilders — as they navigate the next phase in Afghanistan. 

Signs of Everyday Peace: Girls Going to School and Women’s Professional Opportunities

After taking power in August, the Taliban vowed to protect the rights of women and girls. Since then, they have passed a series of restrictive policies, banning co-ed university classrooms and female participation in sports. Most recently, they seized the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and converted it back to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the headquarters for its infamous “morality police.” Unsurprisingly, many Afghan women feel they have been abandoned by the international community. And sadly, global leaders continue to perpetuate the idea that foreign interference may have been a “lost cause.” Our research tells a different story.

Our research demonstrates that there is widespread support for girls’ education and women’s professional opportunities in some parts of rural Afghanistan

Everyday Peace Indicators conducts collaborative research in conflict-affected regions around the world. In 2016, we began work in Afghanistan. We wanted to know how everyday people, especially women, in one of the most war-torn countries in the world defined and experienced peace in their daily lives. Our findings lead us to believe that there is still potential to make significant progress in the way of women’s rights, but this will require us to redirect our focus to the issues that are most relevant to people. Our research demonstrates that there is widespread support for girls’ education and women’s professional opportunities in some parts of rural Afghanistan, which could provide entryways to buttress support for expanding rights for women and girls.

Today, few men have joined the crowds of young women protesting on the streets of Kabul. Many believe this is because the men of Afghanistan are tired of the West and its misguided attempts to control local gender norms. Efforts to impose progressive policies appear to have led to resentment among everyday Afghans. This suspicion is supported by national polls that reveal that nearly two-thirds of men believe that women enjoy too many freedoms. 

Bleak as this figure may seem, it obscures the complex reality of everyday life and the disconnect between rights legislation and implementation. In other words, it hides the extent to which Afghan men and women agree on the rights that should be protected in their communities and how these rights are perceived as being fundamental to peace. 

Some form of “we see girls going to school” was chosen as a top-five indicator in every village

Our research demonstrates surprising commonalities between what women and men want. Over the course of our study, totaling 144 focus groups with 1500 participants, “we see girls going to school” was one of the most common ways that men and women described peace. These descriptions (what we call everyday peace indicators) were recorded by facilitators and presented to communities as long lists. Communities were then presented with these lists and asked to vote on the indicators they believed were most important and relevant to their communities. Of all the indicators listed — ranging from “We sing songs at wedding ceremonies” to “Taliban don’t allow anyone in the village to smoke hash” — some form of “we see girls going to school” was chosen as a top-five indicator in every village.

The majority of the gendered peace indicators in our dataset dealt with women professionals. Seeing women in professional roles, working as doctors, vaccinators, tailors, and market vendors was another critical component of everyday peace. Our results demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, education and employment rights are widely supported by both Afghan men and women.  

From Disconnect to Potential Synergies

Our research also revealed a startling disconnect between the issues the international community prioritized and those that Afghan women — and men — readily identified as being fundamental to their understandings of peace. 

The Afghan constitution is perhaps the greatest testament to this dilemma. Largely designed by international actors, constitutional provisions for “the equal rights of men and women” went into effect in 2004. This article was never taken seriously by the Afghan people or their courts — an unsurprising fact given that many Western democracies, namely the United States, have yet to pass their own equal rights legislation.   

Some of the rights entrenched in the Afghan constitution include political representation in the House of Elders, entrance into military service and land and property inheritance. Despite being prioritized by international actors, none of these rights were regarded as being fundamental to peace in the 18 villages we studied. Why does this matter? Some rights appear to be more widely accepted than others, which provides a potential point of access for those continuing efforts to expand rights and freedoms for women and girls

Keeping Doors Open

Our job now is to recognize these points of consensus and support local efforts to preserve the gains that have been made on these fronts. We must also take advantage of these numbers and apply pressure on the Taliban to ensure they won’t smother the rights and protections that have been hard won over the past years. This is the moment for the international community to come together to support everyday Afghans to fight for women’s rights, according to their own standards and values.