When Educating Girls Means Putting Your Life on the Line

November 30, 2015

Fawzia Nawabi, investigator at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Mazar-e-Sharif, gathers information in a local women's prison.
Fawzia Nawabi, investigator at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Mazar-e-Sharif, gathers information in a local women’s prison.

By Elsie De Laere, Afghanistan country specialist

In Afghanistan, standing up for women’s rights means putting your life on the line—this includes the educators who “dare” to educate girls.

This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we are highlighting the critical role of access to education for girl children—as well as the barriers to this right. And in Afghanistan, the threat to women’s rights defenders—including educators—is a huge barrier to girl children accessing their fundamental right to education.

As an educator and human rights activist here in the United States, the idea that I and my colleagues could be targeted, killed, or hurt for our work is frightening. Yet in Afghanistan where this is a daily reality, teachers and other women’s rights defenders work on despite deteriorating conditions. During my visits to Afghanistan back throughout 2004-2009, I saw how much hope that education of both boys and girls was a high priority, and in many places, both female and male teachers were eager to attend and generally worked with one another comfortably.

But by the end of 2009, security was worsening with the resurgence of violence from the Taleban and other groups. With that increased violence the numbers of teachers and educational leaders started dwindling again. “Night Letters” were getting posted on the doors of teachers and other school staff, threatening them with death if they continued their work. One of my friends, Baheera (not her real name) received many of those letters and shared them with me. Before the American invasion when the Taleban was in control of her province, Baheera taught students at great risk in hidden classrooms. She fears that she and colleagues will be pushed into secret classrooms again.

And today, women’s rights defenders, schools, and educators are very much at risk. As one educator, Malalai (not her real name), detailed in Amnesty International’s report, Their Lives on the Line: Women Human Rights Defenders Under Attack, “I was returning home from work by car, when they detonated a bomb and my husband received serious wounds to his face and hands. The children and I had a lucky escape and received minor injuries…” Malalai’s son had also been kidnapped as “retribution” for her activism. She was the former head of a girl’s school in Afghanistan, where she worked until 2014, after which she sought asylum in Europe because of attacks against her and her family.

According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, “the UN reported more than 1,000 attacks on education [in Afghanistan] in 2009-2012, including schools being set on fire, suicide bombings and remotely detonated bombs, killings of staff, threats to staff and abductions.” There were many reports of alleged poisonings of water and/or air at schools as well. The most frequent attacks were directed at girls’ education. In February 2015, insurgents blew up a girl’s school in Kunar province, destroying 80% of the compound. This was preceded by an attack on a girl’s school in Nangahar in January.  

In 2013, according to the Ministry of Education, approximately 100 teachers and education officials were killed between January and August, some of them by assassination, others in roadside bombings and crossfire. The types of attacks on schools and educational leadership in Afghanistan have included improvised explosive devices, land mines, suicide bombings in and around schools, rocket attacks, grenades, arson, looting, and forced closure of schools.

Motives for the attacks include the perceived ‘un-Islamic’ curriculum, external affiliations of the schools, the education of girls generally, and wider political objectives of the insurgents. Many of the attacks and killings or threats have been in rural areas. Extreme poverty and links to insecurity mean more parents refusing to send their children to schools and teachers and educational government employees refusing to teach there.

The rule of law in Afghanistan hasn’t been established strongly enough to help protect and prevent attacks on those who want to teach—meaning countless girl children are left with little or no access to education. Many brave men and women continue their work, and it is up to us to remind our own government that we must protect these human rights defenders and commit to ensuring girls can safely access education.  

That’s why we’re asking you to send your Representatives and Senators the link to our report and ask them to raise their concerns in Congress and to the President so that women’s rights defenders and girls in school can live and learn without fear!