In partnership with the Dialog-Institut and the Permanent Missions of Afghanistan, the UK, and Finland, the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) organized a well-attended conference concerning Afghan girls’ access to education. The event took place on June 11, 2014, at the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland.
The general focus of the conference was on presenting education as a universal human right, which must be provided to everyone on a non-discriminatory basis.
Theme of the conference
The conference was organized as a side event at the 26th session of the Human Rights Council. In accordance with this occasion, the conference focused on presenting education as a universal human right, which must be provided to everyone on a non-discriminatory basis. Special emphasis was given to the issue of girls’ right to education in Afghanistan, and the speakers provided the audience with insights into this problem based on their first-hand experiences.
Huseyin Hurmali, JWF’s vice president, was the first speaker to take the floor. He opened the discussion by pointing to the close cooperation between the United Nations and JWF, which in 2012 was awarded general consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Hurmali also stressed the importance of education in the process of societal development by referring to the thoughts of Mr. Fethullah Gulen, the honorary president of the Foundation.
In addition, Hurmali announced JWF’s next significant project, namely the Geneva Peace Conference that will be organized in October this year in partnership with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
Dr. Attaullah Wahidyar, chief of staff in Afghanistan’s ministry of education, elaborated on the issue of girls’ right to education in his country by providing statistics regarding the increasing number of girls in Afghan schools. He attracted the audience’s attention by pointing to certain historical events, including the 1979 Russian invasion and the Taliban insurgency, that positively and negatively influenced girls’ involvement in the education process in Afghanistan. According to Wahidyar, the difficulties in establishing and maintaining security in many regions has prevented parents from sending their girls to school, and poverty has produced further obstacles to finding solutions to this problem.
Wahidyar also emphasized the close relationship between education and Islam. He condemned the efforts of insurgents who try to present Afghan society as an Islamic society (in which education should be forbidden to the girls) in order to achieve their own political goals. He made it very clear that both Afghan culture and Islam endorse education for everybody; therefore, not a single element of these two can be used as a pretext to forbid any part of the Afghan population from accessing their right to education.
Dana Burde, assistant professor of international education at New York University, presented the findings of her research in Afghanistan with regards to girls’ right to education. Similarly to Wahidyar, Burde discussed wrongly-interpreted cultural elements that create obstacles to girls’ full emancipation in the national education system. The huge distance between remote villages and schools is an even more pressing problem, according to Burde. Given the insecurity in Afghanistan, parents are reluctant to send their girls to school if they have to travel long distances in order to get there.
Burde’s research demonstrated that community-based schools and increased numbers of female teachers are creating an appropriate solution to this problem. In other words, the government’s policy of creating educational facilities in remote villages resulted in increases in girls’ enrollment in school. Burde concluded her presentation by asserting that the success of this educational policy should be supported and fostered by national and international authorities.
Semiha Topal, assistant professor in the department of sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul, contributed to the conference’s practical significance by providing alternate solutions to the problem of Afghan girls’ low enrollment in school. Like Burde, Topal supported her suggestions by presenting the results of research that she had conducted in Afghanistan.
Topal highlighted civil society workers’ role in improving education, using the example of Afghan-Turkish schools to show civil society’s relevance in promoting girls’ right to education. The quality of the education in these schools is the primary incentive for parents to send their girls to school there. This, according to Topal, proves that Islam is not the main reason for Afghan girls’ low enrollment in school. Topal argued that these schools’ quality and government-maintained security are essential points to focus on.
At the end of the conference, the speakers’ main ideas were summarized. Drawing on Burde’s discussion of community-based education facilities and Topal’s references to the Afghan-Turkish schools, one such idea was that both the quantity and the quality of education should be provided by national and international systems of governance. Doing so would provide the best incentives for parents to send their girls to school.
Wahidyar concluded the conference by expressing his gratitude to the managers of the Afghan-Turkish schools, and by thanking both the friends and the enemies of Afghanistan – the friends, for helping the country in its struggle to provide national education for everyone, and the enemies, for challenging the authorities and creating all the more reason to do better work.
After the conference, Burde and New York University researcher Amy Kapit wrote a post about the conference for the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) Blog. The post highlighted the importance of civil society’s efforts alongside those of the Afghan government. The authors gave the example of NGO-run schools in Ghor Province, which focus on community-based education and have increased access to classes for all children. In fact, these schools have eliminated the gender gap in education, with both boys’ and girls’ enrollment now standing at 70 percent.
Based on these successes, Burde and Kapit concluded, “Increased investment in these promising strategies—community engagement, community-based education, multinational schools—while assessing how to make them most effective, are key steps toward creating a bright future for Afghan girls.”