Very few are able to finish their studies, let alone go on to university.
By Mohammad Ibrahim Speasalay
Soala gazes at her prized high school diploma with tears in her eyes.
Having graduated at the top of her class from the Zarghuna Ana high school in Kandahar province, she had dreamed of going on to study medicine.
But her hopes were dashed when her father and older brother said that they would not allow her to carry on her education.
As a doctor, Soala said, she would have been able to serve the wider society and help rebuild her country. Conservative traditions now meant that her studies were at an end.
“If I had known that they would not allow me to go on to higher education, then maybe I would not have struggled so hard throughout the 12 years [of school],” she said. “I wanted to serve the women of Kandahar in the field of medicine after graduating from university. My father and older brother killed my hope. What good will this certificate do me now?”
Soala’s older brother Asadullah said that he could not face the humiliation of friends teasing him because his sister was allowed to go to university.
“My conscience can not accept my young sister leaving the house every day and studying together with young men she does not know in the same class,” he said. “I am also ashamed of my friends mocking me. If they say even one bad word about my sister, my honour won’t be able to bear it.”
Access to education has improved significantly in the southern province of Kandahar since the fall of the Taleban in 2001. But even those families who send their daughters to school are often unwilling to allow them to continue studying past the age of 15, let alone go on to higher education.
Hazratmir Totakhail, the head of Kandahar university, said that although 2,060 high school graduates had taken entrance exams to begin studying for a degree last year, only 230 of them were female.
The prospects for younger girls hoping to finish high school are even starker. According to Kandahar’s department of education, there are 75,000 girls currently at school in the province. However, statistics indicate that only a handful go on to finish high school.
Education spokesman Nazar Mohammad Samimi told IWPR that only 528 girls had graduated from high school in the last academic year, reflecting the fact that many families did not allow girls to continue past year six of their education.
“Many families in Kandahar face this problem; and I think that this is worse in the districts,” agreed Shogofa Sahar, the head of the women’s affairs sections of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Kandahar.
She said that only 14 incidents of girls being forced to curtail their studies taken had been reported to them over the last year, but the numbers were clearly much higher. Most cases of girls being denied further education were simply not reported.
The chance to chance to continue studying was a human right, Sahar continued, and the community needed to support talented young women so that they can in turn could go on to serve society.
Zalmai Toryal, the head of the teachers’ training institute of Kandahar, also said that many families in Kandahar refuse to allow female family members to continue their education. In addition to cultural traditions, Toryal said that concerns over security led many families to prevent girls continuing their studies. Another factor is that many young women end their education when they get married.
He said that 1,346 students study at his institute, of which only 321 are girls.
“If you look at the number of our students, you will notice the low level of female students attending the teacher training institute. Although we arranged special facilities for them, still the families are not ready to send their daughters to academic institutions.”
Islamic scholar Maulawi Abdul Bari Madani said that there was no religious reason to prevent girls and young women from pursuing their studies.
“The religion of Islam orders its followers to learn Islam never prevents the education, where hijab [modest dress] is observed,” he said.
Civil society activist Abdul Aziz Akrami said that one issue was the fact that, unlike high schools, colleges were co-educational.
“One of the reasons that many families in Kandahar that are not willing to send their daughters to universities and teacher training centres is that there both girls and boys study together,” he said. “If classes for girls and boys were separated, this might help solve the issue.”
Toryal agreed that this might encourage more young women to continue studying. He said that his institution was encouraging their female staff to undertake more teaching hours.
“We also tried to give our female teachers more classes so that we can achieve a women- dominated educational environment,” he said.
Ruqia Achikzai, head of the provincial department of women’s affairs, said that she was had held meetings across the province to try and convince families that they should let girls continue with their education.
“We have talked with girls and their families about this issue to let them know that girls need to have access to higher education so as our society can have a brighter future. Girls, too, need qualifications from academic institutions.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.