Recent events on Afghanistan have highlighted the challenges and fears that exist around women’s education. Despite many promises, the Taliban did a huge U-turn on March 23rd when it told girls who arrived for school that they had to go home. Girls over 11 years of age appear to have been refused the option of returning to school after the Taliban took over government.
The narrative is confused. Uniform debates and lack of teachers were among the issues that the Taliban said had forced this closure of schools. Not everyone agrees. Some suggest the issue is about internal divisions within the Taliban, while others make a nonsense of the issue of uniforms, stating uniforms for girls are already very conservative.
The higher education of girls is seen as a pointer to development. Many point to the increase in girls education after the earlier fall of the Taliban. UNESCO reported an increase in the number of girls in higher education from 5,000 in 2001 to 90,000 in 2018.
While access to education is one issue highlighted by these recent events, is it the only challenge for women and girls with respect to education? Education is more than completing a course, although enabling girls to complete education cycles remains a challenge in many contexts. Poverty, early marriage, gendered roles, lack of female teachers are just some of the issues that challenge inclusion of girls in education.
Another challenge is that girls are often not equally empowered through education. When I worked in a large South Asian educational institution for girls, many were allowed to complete their education in order to ensure they would get a better class of marriage. This demeaning of education and its outcomes haunts some girls whose education has a purpose other than empowering and enabling her.
Education needs to be part of coherent strategies that address social inequalities in order for girls to really enjoy its benefits. Education also needs to give attention to the challenges girls face and include strategies that not only enable participation but also promote gender equal opportunities in the classroom.
That education of girls has wide-ranging benefits for societies is well documented, however the barriers to achieving equality in education remain high.