Over the past two decades, Afghan women made significant progress in expanding their rights and gaining access to educational and economic opportunities in Afghanistan.
In 2001, Afghanistan had an estimated 1 million students enrolled in school, most of whom were male. In 2020, less than 20 years later, there were more than 9.5 million Afghan students enrolled in school. Over 39% of these students were girls, marking a significant increase in access to education for females (USAID). While the increase in primary school enrollment of girls was substantial, the increase in secondary education for girls was even more significant. Between 2003 and 2018, enrollment increased from 6% to 40% (UNICEF), and the percentage of female graduates from tertiary education was nearly 24% (World Bank).
Education was not the only area that achieved significant progress for women and girls during those decades. Women also became far more involved in the workforce, with broad participation in both the public and private sector. Women assumed leadership positions and participated in media, sports, business – industries typically dominated by males. In fact, I don’t recall any sector that did not have women’s participation.
The shift in power that occurred on August 15, 2021 not only stopped the pace of progress, but the Taliban’s policies have also taken many hard-earned opportunities away from women. Women have been banned from public jobs, and girls have been banned from secondary education and technical and vocational institutes. After a few months of ruling the country, the Taliban even banned women from walking on the streets without a male companion. Women have been restricted from participating in the media, and media coverage of these events has been banned, with over 100 media outlets forced to close in the last seven months.
When the Taliban first banned girls from secondary education, they promised to make secure arrangements for girls to return to school in March, the beginning of the education year. So on March 23, 2022, millions of girls showed up at schools across Afghanistan expecting to be admitted. They were devastated to find out that the Taliban did not uphold its promise and instead issued a decree on the spot that closed school doors in the face of girls.
Extremely hopeless and tearful, millions of Afghan girls returned to their homes. Initially, women demonstrated in the streets on almost a daily basis to protest these restrictions and demand their rights. Now, the Taliban has banned women from demonstrating and arrested the women who were involved in those initial demonstrations. Women and girls and their families have been left devastated and helpless.
Things are going backward, but Afghan women and girls are still determined to stand up for themselves and for their rights. What they need from the international community is to stand behind them. They need us to continue investing in women’s civil society and supporting women’s rights activists. They need the international community to hold the Taliban accountable and leverage our collective power and influence to negotiate with the Taliban for their righteous demands. They aren’t asking for a lot; they simply want the opportunity to thrive.