Historically, women have long borne the brunt of social, political and economic instabilities, with very little to no control over the situation. However, to be “officially” banned from a right as basic as getting an education might be unfamiliar to many. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where women are banned from getting an education, for the second time now. What is known of Afghan women are mostly from the post 9/11 narratives, none of which fully represent the gains and the losses that Afghan women have had to go through. From being able to vote in 1919, to gaining the right to equal political and social participation in the 1960s, to a total loss of right to education, employment, and participation in the social and political spheres as a result of the political unrests  in the 80s and 90s.

In 1996, when the Taliban came to power for the first time, they immediately shut down all girls’ schools and barred women from all public spaces. Most girls were out of school and some attended secret schools that were created as a response to school closures. In 2001, after the US invasion, schools reopened and millions of children entered the school system—many for the first time. One-third of these students were girls. Though women were again allowed to teach and even be principals of schools, girls were still substantially under-represented among the students flooding the Afghanistan education system.  Many girls in Afghanistan were far behind in their access to education due to years of Taliban rule; stigma against girls’ education, the lack of available facilities, and early marriage or motherhood kept girls from school. To address these needs, Sahar built and repaired schools mainly for girls. To improve the quality of education in girls’ schools, Sahar launched teacher training programs.  In 2015, Sahar launched the pilot for the Early Marriage Prevention Program in two Afghanistan schools. As we worked with young girls and their families, the importance of working with men to achieve gender equity was reiterated to us. Hence, Sahar launched its Men as Partners in Change Program.

Women and girls had, once again, made significant gains in social, political and economic affairs in the years after the Taliban were overthrown. Waves of educated Afghan women entered the workforce; doctors, engineers, architects, teachers, musicians, artists, journalists, parliamentarians, civil servants, police officers, social workers, businesswomen and so on. The social dynamics had started to change. Society had, once again, started to be more accepting of gender equality. Twenty years of hope and hard earned rights came crashing down when the Taliban rapidly made their way to Kabul and took over Afghanistan for the second time in August of 2021.

Since returning to power, Taliban leaders and their de facto regime have issued more than 30 decrees banning Afghan women from access to any education beyond grade six, employment of Afghan women in almost all sectors including national and international organizations, women traveling without a male blood relative (mahram). The ministry of women’s affairs has been dissolved. Journalists and female protesters have been detained and tortured. The economic and hunger crisis have only worsened. Women and girls in Afghanistan face systematic gender apartheid and discrimination.

While many organizations suspended or canceled operations in Afghanistan, Sahar saw the need, more than ever before, to step in. We have since pivoted slightly, however our mission to create educational opportunities in Afghanistan that empower and inspire children and their families to build peaceful, thriving communities, still remains the same. While we have paused our efforts to build girls’ schools, we partner with in-country grassroots organizations in Afghanistan to provide learning spaces and educational programs for girls and women. As the de facto Taliban regime tries to eliminate girls and women from the Afghan society and brainwash men, it is crucial to educate women about their rights and support them in their journey of self-empowerment.

Read the full article about women and girls’ education by Meetra Alokozay at Global Washington.