This article was originally published by The New Humanitarian, a news agency specialised in reporting humanitarian crises.
Restrictions imposed by the Taliban on girls' education have caused great concern that Afghan governance is moving backward: Secondary schools have been closed for girls for more than a year now. But there are reasons to believe that international engagement could encourage the Taliban to move positively on the issue, for the benefit of girls and the country.
On the surface, it may seem like nothing much is likely to change. Behind the scenes, however, there has already been a flurry of movement in the last few months as senior Taliban officials work to overturn the unpopular policy amid internal wrangling.
Rifts in the ranks
Most of the Taliban, including the acting education minister at the time, were caught off guard by the shock announcement in March that the supreme leader was indefinitely closing public secondary schools for an estimated 3 million girls.
But the closure was the result of pressure from a small group of ultraconservative advisers. And it remains true that the Taliban's top brass – save for a handful of individuals – aren't opposed to girls' schools: for years they have educated their own daughters and wives.
Several senior Taliban officials have kept issuing reassurances to the media and to diplomats that they are working to re-open the schools. Many Taliban understand that Afghanistan will always be vulnerable to foreign interference if its human development is not strengthened, which requires educating both halves of the population. Privately, many Taliban fear that if the policy is not changed, it could be the death knell of their government.
For months, there have been rumours within Taliban circles that the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has decided to reverse the closure, and many have been anticipating a positive announcement. However, the deputy foreign minister, who had argued for girls' education in a televised conference, was publicly admonished in May by the acting head of the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. And the acting education minister – who favours girls' education – was demoted in September and replaced with a Kandahari cleric.
That primary schools and universities largely remain open for women and girls, while high schools are officially off limits to them, underscores that the policy is born out of internal contradictions between Taliban factions. It has also been implemented inconsistently across Afghanistan, with local councils permitting public secondary schools to still run in two provinces.
Paralysis of international aid
International aid organisations have struggled to adjust to the uniquely difficult circumstances since the Taliban took power in August 2021.
Afghanistan's financial system collapsed after the US froze Afghan Central Bank assets. The universally unrecognised Taliban government is led by several ministers listed under UN Security Council counter-terrorism sanctions, which prompted donors to suspend the assistance that funded 75% of the previous ruling government's spending. The country has been plunged into destitution, with 90% of the population under the poverty line.
International aid has largely been restricted to short-term humanitarian relief. Development assistance – which is where sustainable peace dividends are to be found – has almost entirely stalled in the absence of any national partnership with the de facto authorities.
So where does this leave the education sector? Before the Taliban takeover, international donors led extensive programmes that supported the formal education system. This was done in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education, which received continuous technical and financial support.
Since the takeover, there has been no direct financial support through the education ministry and no substantive national coordination for programming. There is simply no donor appetite to accept the risk of funnelling international funds through the Taliban-led administration. Fear of diverted funds is cited as the reason for this by donors, but it should be remembered that the Ministry of Education under the former regime was also known to be notoriously corrupt.
The current situation leaves large parts of the education sector hollowed out at a time when it needs the backing of the international community most.
The position of many aid actors is to entirely avoid working with the formal secondary system since it is inherently discriminatory under the girls' school closure. While well-intentioned, such moves are likely to cripple the institutional capacities of this system for boys as well as girls – if and when they eventually return to classrooms.
At present, the most important development goal in Afghanistan is retaining the national pool of qualified civil servants, such as teachers, in the country. These technical professionals represent 20 years' worth of international investment into Afghan capacities.
If such citizens are forced to leave their profession or their country because they can't earn a decent livelihood, Afghanistan will lose decades of development through a further brain drain. Tens of thousands of these professionals were already taken out of Afghanistan after the mass international civilian evacuation at the end of August 2021.
Teacher salaries were primarily funded by international donors under the previous regime. For a couple of months in early 2022, UNICEF paid teacher salaries directly by circumventing the Taliban-led ministries, but this funding was discontinued after the failure to re-open girls' secondary schools in March.
The Taliban also paid a few months' salaries for teachers, including retroactively for women teachers who had previously been instructed to stay at home in the immediate aftermath of the takeover. But they have since stated that they are only able to pay 30% of teacher salaries nationwide. Without proactive support for teacher retention, the education system will collapse.
Talk to the hardliners and support Afghan teachers
The status of girls' schools is exponentially important as it also defines the prospects for wider international engagement with the Taliban and, by extension, of broader international support for development and reconstruction.
Needless to say, international dialogue with the Taliban to overturn the closure of girls' schooling must continue. But, too often, international representatives only speak to the same pragmatic Taliban diplomats. When it comes to girls' education and similar issues, this is the church preaching to the choir.
Instead, international interlocutors must engage with the hardline ministers who are responsible for the closure. Religious conferences for the rights of women and girls are useful formats for such dialogues to occur.
But advocacy and dialogue alone are not enough. International donors must continue to pay public teachers' salaries without conditions – not least because this type of pressure isn't effective with the Taliban. The national education system should not pay the price for the extremist policies of a small group of individuals.
It has also become clear that the re-opening of girls' schooling will be tied to new segregation requirements imposed by the Taliban, who are employing a broader definition of segregation that will require separate bus transport systems, women teachers, and so on.
Meeting these conditions is a major implementation challenge for an education sector that is already chronically under-resourced. But, if successful, it has the potential to raise girls' education rates in rural areas, where most girls weren't attending school even under the former Western-backed government.
For this, UNICEF has recently made an important stride by establishing 140 community-based educational classes for girls and boys closer to their villages in Khost and Paktika provinces.
Finally, the enduring dilemma is that divorcing international aid from the purview of the national authorities under the Taliban erodes the ability of the Afghan government to deliver services over the long term. This question cannot be put off indefinitely.
What's at stake isn't just the Taliban's regime, but the future of Afghan state institutions. A serious conversation about reinstituting a national accountability mechanism involving Afghan experts should be launched as soon as possible. This would build the trust needed to ensure that all sides are committed to the transparency and impartiality of aid.
With each day that passes without action, the less likely it is that the high school gates will re-open in time for today's teenage girls. Many of them will be married off, become pregnant, or be pulled from their ambitions for self-betterment to work in menial jobs. They will have been unjustly deprived of their right to access the single most important service in determining the quality of the rest of their life.
Even those who do return to school will have suffered the trauma of this purgatory as they wonder if their fate is to remain trapped in their homes – forced to watch while other violations of their rights fall into place around them like iron bars.
The sooner the international community can step up and support efforts for Afghan girls' education – which must include forging a solution with the Taliban – the sooner the country can get back on track on the difficult road of building a just and inclusive peace.