One hot summer day, 3 teenage girls were walking to school in Afghanistan’s Western Herat Province when a group of men on motorbikes threw acid in their faces. Following the attack, the men responsible called the act “punishment for going to school.”
Now you may be wondering when this event took place, whether it was in 1999 at the height of the Taliban rule or 2012 the same year that an entire school was poisoned in Pakistan and where there were “at least 185 documented attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan.” Well, you’re wrong: shockingly, this attack took place just a month ago on July 5th 2015.
The disfigurement of these three girls for pursing an education highlights the fact that Afghanistan is far from being rid of the Taliban, which is currently regaining momentum and power in many of Afghanistan’s provinces. What this means for women and girls is catastrophic as their freedoms and rights continue to be systematically abused.
During the Taliban rule, education was “completely prohibited for girls.” Anyone brave enough to attempt to educate or be educated was met with the severest of punishments, often public stoning or floggings. These extremists managed to fortify a system of society and education that oppressed women both physically and mentally and it was one that started right at birth. Stripping young girls of their education meant that they were robbed from their ability to realize that the treatment they endured was not normal and entirely in contrast to their human rights. At this time, Afghanistan also saw a sharp increase in child marriages, which kept hundreds of thousands of young girls away from schools and in precarious situations.
The Afghanistan of today is certainly not as indiscriminately brutal as it was at the height of the Taliban rule, but education statistics within the country are still dire. Only 12% of Afghan women are literate and only 21% of females make it to secondary school. Since 2002 the amount of girls going to school has seen a large increase, by as high as 18%; however, there are still too many children, mostly girls who do not have access to education due to lack of resources, traditional customs which favor early marriage over secondary education and, unfortunately, rising Taliban territorial power. Attacks such as “bombings, water poisonings, gas attacks and acid attacks” are still too common a threat for girls attempting to simply pursue an education. The recent acid attack is a dark reminder that the legacy of the Taliban, and in many areas the very real presence of the Taliban, still holds Afghanistan in deadlock, particularly for women.
In spite of this, there are organizations pushing back against these horrible realities and working to make a difference in the lives of Afghan women and girls. Women for Afghan Women (WAW), the largest shelter providing organization in Afghanistan which runs facilities such as shelters and halfway houses across 13 provinces continues to be a fundamental force in the war for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Along with their New York Community Center and DC advocacy office, these dedicated workers use every tool in their disposal to prevent women and children from being denied basic rights, most importantly education.
As an intern at Women for Afghan Women, I have witnessed firsthand the lengths that these women go to. To name a few, they provide life skills and literacy classes for women of all ages, but they also find defense lawyers for women facing moral or other crime sentences, lobby for women’s rights in Afghanistan and DC and house women and children suffering the worst of abuses. Yet this does not even begin to cover the change they have fostered. In just 15 years since their inception, Women for Afghan Women has been able to leave an indispensable mark on women’s lives and on women’s rights activism, not just in Afghanistan but throughout South Asia and the rest of the world.
Despite the grave challenges they face, Women for Afghan Women and all the other organizations working to bring change to Afghanistan, represent a beacon of hope and progress for the country. I hope, despite the ongoing challenges and continued violence against women and girls, the world will focus on the progress made by these amazing groups and not on the actions of the Taliban.
Written by Georgia James, WAW Development Intern