One by one, the girls – aged between eight and 10 – stood up in front of the Taliban leaders who had come to visit them, and they set out their dream: that their sisters, all adolescent girls, be allowed to return to secondary school.
The scene took place at the first all-women mission in Afghanistan, led by Yasmine Sherif, the director of the charity Education Cannot Wait, a global fund. It seeks to provide ongoing education during emergencies and protracted crises.
Its aim is to give displaced girls the education they crave. Now, with their new Taliban leaders before them, they pleaded for the chance to escape a life of poverty and servitude.
The girls’ courage and strength provide us with a rare shard of hope. With 97 per cent of the population at risk of being thrown into absolute poverty by mid-2022, we are at “a moment of exceptional gravity for the people of Afghanistan”, says Martin Griffiths, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.
Britain must now organise a pledging conference to raise the funds essential to prevent a winter of starvation, for famine stalks the land. On the ground, mothers and children are going without the food they need and even the doctors who treat them, who have gone unpaid for months, fear they too may soon have to be admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition.
There is no “childhood” today for most boys and girls in Afghanistan, only a fight for survival – and this is my concern as UN special envoy for global education.
Many of the important advances that brought millions more girls and boys into school – which I have seen on my visits to Afghanistan – are being wiped out. Even before Covid-19 closed Afghan schools for 12 months, nearly 4.2 million children were not in school – 2.5 million of whom were girls.
Now, 10 million or so children who are enrolled are also at risk of dropping out: if and when the education system collapses.
There are some brighter spots, such as the reopening of secondary schools in Balkh and less conservative parts in the north. But in this land, in only six out of 34 provinces, has girls’ secondary education resumed.
This is in part because of efforts, at the local level, by UN agencies and NGOs – achieved by building on established relationships with local communities and salvaging the informal community-based and home schools (which, by an agreement between the Taliban and Unicef, have continued in temporary learning spaces). Now we must find the resources to finance them.
The de facto authorities in Kabul have formally expressed their commitment to education for both boys and girls in the country, including at the secondary level – but with the proviso that they are developing a plan “to define under which conditions secondary education can resume for girls in line with their cultural and religious values”.
Yet girls’ education is a pre-condition for rebuilding a country torn asunder by 40 years of war. What can we – the international community – do to avert this humanitarian disaster?
With no women in the government, the closure of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the requirement for women and girls to travel with a mahram, or male relative, and still no education for adolescent girls; hope is starting to fade.
But with the Taliban themselves now pressing the international community to restore the billions of dollars frozen in foreign bank accounts, humanitarians are demanding in return that education is universally available to all girls.
Of course, it will not be easy to get any new fatwa denouncing the ban on girls getting secondary schooling, and indeed, pressure from the outside may be counterproductive. Afghan religious leaders are fiercely independent and will no longer allow themselves to be seen as pawns in other peoples’ proxy wars.
But one by one, we must try to persuade religious leaders at a local level that education is not a threat to religious devotion nor a capitulation to the west, but indispensable to the development of a young life. If an advance can be made with religious leaders, one by one – progress can also be made province by province.
The other ray of hope is that, coordinated by Martin Griffiths, the UN and its international and national NGO partners are continuing to try to operate on the ground. This provides an opportunity – and a platform – for the international community to support girls’ education by offering the finance to maintain local projects.
This includes community based-schools and accelerated learning programmes, run by accredited and vetted NGOs. This new funding must include the payment of teachers, an estimated 70 per cent of whom have not been paid for months. A fully-funded Unicef could pay them directly, without passing money through the Taliban government.
Education itself needs at least $1bn (£745m) if we are to build a functioning education system. The World Bank holds $1.5bn in the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund trust for the country, with $1.2bn earmarked for projects agreed to by the previous government.
It recently made available just under $300m in support of food security (the World Food Programme) and health (Unicef), but not education – and thus, not teachers’ salaries. Given the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, the whole fund should be reprogrammed to support the Afghan people this winter.
The 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan will be the largest ever single-country humanitarian appeal, at $4.44bn. It is almost certain that more will be needed. About $162m – less than 4 per cent of the total funding requirements of the appeal – is earmarked to go to education, and I know Martin Griffiths and humanitarian partners want to do more.
Education Cannot Wait, which funds many of Unicef’s efforts, has a current funding gap of $108m for its ongoing multi-year investment. It alone needs at least about $350m to meet future needs. So the next step will be to seek support for a properly financed multi-year plan starting with the nine provinces that Unicef and Education Cannot Wait have been assisting.
The courageous girls who spoke of their desire for education are not just speaking to the Taliban – they are speaking to us too. We ignore them at our peril. We must embrace the hopes they represent and offer these girls a window of opportunity that may, over time, help build the new Afghanistan that will emerge in time from today’s devastation.
When Samantha Mort of Unicef Afghanistan asked a school class in Kabul if pupils had a message to share with the outside world, a seven-year-old girl put her hand up. She asked if the world could keep the peace in Afghanistan so that she could continue going to school.
And when the representative of the de facto authorities heard the young girls speaking to Yasmine Sharif at that primary school, he stepped forward and said: “I promise you that every one of your sisters will attend secondary school.”
To keep hope alive in Afghanistan, we must keep him to his word.
Gordon Brown is a United Nations special envoy for education and former UK prime minister
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