In March, 20 months after the Taliban banned Afghan girls from receiving secondary education, another school year began in Afghanistan — the only country in the world where girls are prohibited from going to school beyond the primary level. Since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover, the group has sought to marginalize women and girls and erase them from virtually every aspect of public life. After a September 2021 ban on high school education, the Taliban also barred women from attending university at the end of last year. In a series of interviews with USIP, Afghan mothers, female students, schoolteachers, and university lecturers spoke of the terrible toll the Taliban’s actions have taken on their mental health.
The Taliban have implemented over 20 written and verbal decrees on girls’ education — with each edict adding more and more restrictions. These decrees, among other things, ban: co-education; secondary education for girls; certain majors for female university students (including journalism, law, agriculture, veterinary science and economics); and annual university entry exams for female students. Meanwhile, university female lecturers face severe restrictions designed to keep them from interacting with men on campus.
Beside these draconian rules, the Taliban are also targeting girls’ and boys’ schools. In the past two weeks alone, two girls’ schools in Faryab and Paktia provinces and a boys’ school in Panjshir have been burned down. These attacks exhibit a common tactic used by the Taliban to clamp down on education.
These actions will have devastating, long-term implications not just for women and girls but the very social and economic fabric of Afghan society, with half of the population unable to contribute to their country’s future.
This stands in sharp contrast to the educational gains Afghanistan had made since 2001. Indeed, prior to the Taliban takeover, the country’s education sector was thriving, with access for girls across all 34 provinces at all education levels — except in areas under the Taliban control.
From 2002 to 2021, 3,816,793 girls enrolled in first through 12th grades. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education’s 2020-2021 annual report, there was 18,765 public and private schools in operation. Afghanistan also had more than 200,000 teachers, including 80,554 women. Over 100,000 Afghan women were enrolled in public or private universities in 2020 and, according to 2019 figures, there were 2,439 female lecturers at higher education institutions. Public and private universities flourished in the last two decades, providing women and girls with countless opportunities to contribute to Afghanistan’s future.
These educational advances fostered broader societal achievements and gains for women. Before the Taliban takeover, 63 women were in the Afghan parliament, nine held minister- or deputy-minister level positions. Afghanistan’s judicial system had 280 women judges and over 500 prosecutors. There were over 2,000 women-owned small- and medium-sized businesses.
This is just a snapshot of how women were increasingly playing vital roles in Afghanistan’s traditionally patriarchal society. The Taliban have worked to quickly erase all this progress — and it is wearing on the hearts and minds of women and girls.
The Psychological Impact
The evaporation of these advancements has led to dire psychological impacts. During interviews with Afghan women and girls, USIP heard distressing reports about girls that have been out of school exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, saying they feel they are living a life with no purpose and an uncertain future. “My students are suffering from attention deficiency. Most have learning difficulty and display signs of depression and anxiety,” said a ninth-grade teacher from an underground private school in Kabul.
Some are even isolating themselves from family, while others have turned to narcotics, further fueling Afghanistan’s drug crisis. Those that are using narcotics see it as a way to escape and create alternate realities for themselves. “I like being in my imaginary world I have created for myself. There, I am safe, and I can do whatever I want,” said one female student from Takhar province who told USIP she was using synthetic drugs. “You are probably going to laugh at me, but in that world, I am going to graduate next year and become a pilot.”
These forlorn sentiments are shared by many in Afghanistan. One sixth-grade student from Kabul told USIP that when she thinks about her future, she is “restless and agitated” and that at times “the sadness is overpowering.” She has dreams of becoming a psychologist and her mother, who is a teacher, tells her that despite the current situation she should continue to hold out hope for a brighter future.
The mother of an eighth-grade student from Maidan Wardak, burst into tears while sharing concern about her daughter’s mental health. “My daughter puts on her uniform several times a day. She talks to herself all day about school, her teachers and her classmates. I feel helpless.”
Afghanistan already had a paucity of female mental health experts and Taliban travel restrictions have exacerbated this situation, making it difficult for these experts to even reach communities in need.
Without mental health counselors and practitioners, these girls have no resources to turn to in this critical juncture of their lives.
Going After Educators
The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and the Ministry of Education have begun administering religious tests for teachers. These tests are intended as a mechanism for the Taliban to dismiss educated and experienced teachers and replace them with those that are not formally educated or experienced, with the majority only educated at madrassas. The Taliban have also created an incentive structure with the test, providing teachers that pass the religious test with a modest bonus or salary increase. A teacher from northern Kunduz province with over 25 years’ experience was dismissed last fall because she failed the religious knowledge test last year. “Our society is about to sink in a dark pit that the Taliban keep digging deeper and deeper,” she said.
A teacher at an elementary school in Kabul noted that harassment and intimidation by the officers of the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is now routine. The ministry has told teachers that white running shoes, high heels and bright colored clothing are banned. In many parts of the country, teachers are ordered to cover their face even inside classrooms while teaching. “We are faced with constant humiliation by Taliban-appointed school officials within the school and by Vice and Virtue and police outside schools, questioning our knowledge of Islam, harassing us because of our outfits,” she said.
Throughout the country, the Taliban’s decrees and bans have been met with vocal opposition from men and women, including education activists working tirelessly to advocate for girls' access to education. Matiullah Wesa is one of these individuals. In 2009, he founded Pen Path Civil Society and Pen Path Helping Charity Organization to provide education to disadvantaged girls and boys in remote areas in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Since its inception, the organization has provided education access to 57,000 children, 35 percent of whom are girls.
On March 27, the Taliban detained Wesa — his whereabout remain unknown to his family. For those like Wesa that push for basic human rights, forced disappearances and abductions have become commonplace. This is a serious human rights violation that has become a routine Taliban practice to spread terror and silence dissenting voices.
Sustaining Focus on the Plight of Afghans
These edicts and bans will not go away overnight, nor can they be wished away. It is therefore incumbent on concerned parties to maintain consistent and firm pressure on the Taliban — at the domestic, regional and international levels — to allow girls to attend school and open access to female university students and lecturers.
Education and protection against discrimination are basic human rights, enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention against Discrimination in Education and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Taliban should be forced to observe the principles upheld in these conventions or be brought to justice in international fora.
Given the Taliban’s resilience to international pressure to date, there are very limited policy options to circumvent their draconian strictures or compel them to change behavior. Online educational platforms promise secure learning within the home, but millions of Afghan women and girls living in rural areas have limited internet access. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Muslim-majority countries have called on Taliban to rescind their bans, but it has resulted in no change and it’s unlikely the OIC will be more engaged on this issue. And the international community’s sanctions have had no demonstrable impact.
The international community has largely turned its attention away from the dire situation in Afghanistan, as it focuses on atrocities in Ukraine and elsewhere. For now, it is vital for the international community to continue to spotlight the Taliban’s abuses against Afghanistan’s beleaguered women and girls. “Please be the voice of Afghan mothers and tell the world about our suffering,” pleaded the mother from Maidan Wardak. That is the least we can do.
The names of those interviewed for this article have been omitted for their safety.