Working alongside Peace Islands Institute New York (PIINY) and the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the UN, the JWF Women’s Platform co-organized a panel on the achievements and challenges of girls’ education in Afghanistan. The event took place on March 18, 2014, at United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York.
Education holds a top priority in Afghanistan. Around 2.5 million girls have returned to school after the fall of the Taliban government. However, many girls still lack access to education due to insecurity, lack of school facilities, and a shortage of qualified teachers.
H.E. Dr. Zahir Tanin, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN
The panel was an official side event at the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The panelists discussed the achievements of the Afghan government in girls’ education and the challenges of implementing education policies. The moderator was Mr. Irwin Arieff, contributor to PassBlue and former UN correspondent for Reuters.
In his welcoming remarks, H.E. Dr. Zahir Tanin, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN, explained the Afghan government’s education policy and how education was crucial for the development of Afghanistan. Education holds a top priority and around 2.5 million girls have returned to school after the fall of the Taliban government. However, Dr. Tanin recognizes that many girls still lack access to education due to insecurity, lack of school facilities, and a shortage of qualified teachers. With help from the international community, the Afghan government is advancing their educational policies in order to meet UN Millennium Development Goals.
Additional welcoming remarks were then given by Huseyin Hurmali, JWF’s vice president. Citing ignorance, poverty, and internal conflict as three of humanity’s greatest challenges, Hurmali emphasized education’s essential role in building peace. He also explained the vision of JWF’s honorary president, Fethullah Gulen, by saying, “Ignorance will be solved through education; poverty, through hard work; and internal conflict, through unity and dialogue.” Hurmali stated that the Gulen movement’s schools are helping realize this vision through their contributions to girls’ education in Afghanistan.
The panel’s first speaker was H.E. Mr. Marten Grunditz, Permanent Representative of Sweden to the UN. He pointed to the fact that Sweden has had a keen interest in the development of Afghanistan and especially education. Ambassador Grunditz briefed the audience about the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) and their efforts in the country over the last 30 years. SCA was the only organization running a school for girls under the Taliban regime. Since 2002, Sweden has aided Afghanistan with 200 million USD through SCA and UNICEF. Further, Mr. Grunditz described the positive impact that investment in girls’ education brought to Afghan society. For example, girls who were educated were less likely to be forced into early marriage, girls and women who were educated have fewer and healthier babies, and they were most likely to send their children to school themselves. They are also gaining confidence to claim their rights, and education is one of the most effective ways of reducing poverty. However, there are various barriers to girls’ education such as insecurity, lack of female teachers, early marriages, and traditional view of girls education. The key priority of Sweden in Afghanistan is to give access to good primary education, focusing on girls’ rights, hiring more qualified teachers, providing better education that is more focused on quality rather than quantity, and creating better opportunities for children with disabilities.
Dr. Anju Malhotra, senior expert on gender and equality in UNICEF, pointed out that girls’ education has often been forgotten in the field of development. This is an area of concern regarding gender equality and education, especially in the years approaching the 2015 agenda. Internationally, there is an increase in girls getting education, but global indicators can hide a wide range of disparity such as girls’ education in Afghanistan. According to Dr. Malhotra, we need to aim higher and not only focus on getting girls into schools, but also on making them globally competitive. The challenges faced in Afghanistan are both concrete (such as having a lack of female teachers and facilities and facing long distances to schools) and also persistent (like harassment, shame, and violence). Dr. Malhotra explained how she personally experienced norms changing. In order to meet the need, the international community must think outside of the box. Therefore, UNICEF has started improving teacher training for women in their own community and bringing the school to the children – a “mobile school,” so to speak.
The panel’s final speaker was Dr. Semiha Topal, JWF representative and assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Fatih University in Turkey. She discussed her research on Afghan-Turkish schools and their role in educating Afghan youth. These schools are run by Turkish NGOs, and according to Dr. Topal, this can be seen as a model for sustainable education for girls and boys in conflict zones and regions. Thirty-seven interviews with students and parents and 619 surveys in different provinces formed the basis of her study. According to the NGO’s philosophy, education is a key factor for improvement in all aspects of life. Together with Turkish entrepreneurs, the NGO established the first private school in Afghanistan. It runs both girls-only and boys-only schools within various provinces. Explaining the results of her research, Dr. Topal stressed how the schools managed to attract the best students due to high-quality teaching and emphasized how the Afghan people value high-quality education.