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Negotiating with the Taliban for girls′ education

Treading carefully

More than 16 years after the fall of their government, the Taliban say they are willing to allow girls to study, but residents on the ground say the group has done little, if anything, to re-open girls′ schools in areas under their control. Ali M. Latifi reports from Afghanistan.

Hossai, six, and Shamila, 12, sit quietly, playing with their brightly-coloured scarves as the men of their village tell the story of a U.S. drone strike that killed a truck driver transporting watermelons not far from this simple mud house in the eastern Afghan province of Maidan Wardak.

For years, Maidan Wardak has been plagued by such violence from all sides. Armed groups, including the Taliban and the armed faction of Hezb-e Islami, which until 2016 was the nation′s second largest armed opposition movement, have long had a foothold in the province 40 minutes south of Kabul. Less than a kilometre from the house lays a cemetery where the white flags of the Taliban hang over graves, extolling the men buried there for their fight against the foreign occupier.

In 2013, the then president, Hamid Karzai, ordered the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces from the province following accusations of abuse, disappearances and killings.The two girls, who have not attended school for more than two years, are also indicative of the toll that violence has taken on the province′s 570,000 residents. The girls say their families help by providing lessons at home, but they know that in order to fulfil their dreams of becoming a teacher and a doctor, their school must reopen. They want to study Pashto, their native language, Dari, Afghanistan′s other official language, maths and the Koran. Yet, with violence increasing across the country, the prospects seem slim.

″The Taliban closed our school,″ say the girls as they gaze at the floor. The men in the room, several of whom are connected to local factions of the Taliban, agree.

Millions deprived of an education

Shamila and Hossai are not alone. Across Afghanistan, millions of schoolchildren have been deprived of an education due to the ongoing conflict. According to a survey conducted by the European Union and the Afghan Central Statistics Office, a mere 21.7 percent of girls and women are enrolled in formal or informal education. The rate of attendance among boys and men is equally discouraging, at 45.9 percent.

The survey called the low rate of educational attendance for both sexes ″an indicator of lost human capital among a generation that will put a mark on the near future of the country.″ The ministry of education paints an equally grim picture.

In January, the acting Minister of Education, Asadullah Mohaqiq, said insecurity has led to the closure of more than 1,000 schools across the country. Addressing the upper house of the parliament, Mohaqiq also said a recent Ministry of Education study found that only six million Afghan children are in school, a considerable drop from the 11 million cited by the government of former president, Hamid Karzai.

Heather Barr, a senior researcher on women′s rights with Human Rights Watch, says insecurity is having a ″huge impact″ on girls′ education in Afghanistan.

″When security worsens in an area, often the first consequence is that girls, but not boys, are kept home from school by frightened parents,″ said Barr, who is currently in the process of researching and compiling a report about girls′ access to education in Afghanistan. Negotiating with the Taliban

This is exactly the phenomenon Ali Wardak, a 28-year-old Afghan-American whose family hails from Sayed Abad, wants to put an end to through direct negotiations with the Taliban. During the last month, Wardak has made several trips from his office in Kabul to both Sayed Abad and Sheikh Abad district in a bid to convince the Taliban to reopen girls′ schools in areas under their control. His meetings have gone better than expected.

Last month he met with a representative from the group′s leadership council (based in Quetta, Pakistan) in another humble mud house in Sheikh Abad. He was surprised by the response to his request from Qari Yusuf, the Taliban representative.

″The emirate has no problem with education for girls or boys,″ asserts Yusuf, using the group′s preferred name for their insurgency. In fact, Yusuf says the Quetta Shura, the leadership council of the Taliban, recently came very close to allowing girls to study up until at least the sixth grade. But Yusuf admits that there is another hurdle to making their agreement a reality in the country. ″There are people and groups that are trying to paint the Taliban in a bad light and say we are against girls′ education.″ This, Yusuf admits, has led to local Taliban leaders on the ground to cling to the belief that top-level Taliban officials are still opposed to the education of girls.

″You mean the ISI,″ Wardak prompts, referring to the Pakistani spy agency that Afghans have long accused of aiding and abetting the Taliban. Yusuf nods in agreement. The acknowledgement of ISI ″fraud″ and ″sedition″ against the Taliban is a telling admission by a group often referred to as ″puppets″ of Pakistani intelligence. Unwilling to let the opportunity pass, Wardak promises to provide Yusuf and anyone who may be opposed to the education of girls, with religious justifications that promote the education of girls. Heartened by the brief conversation, Wardak knows there is still a long way to go. ″This is only the first step,″ he concedes. Educating girls not a priority

Despite Wardak′s optimism, others are more dubious of the Taliban′s rhetoric. The problem, says Heather Barr from Human Rights Watch, remains in the implementation of their promises.

″It′s far from clear whether they are actually telling their commanders on the ground to allow girls to school. In our research on education we′ve heard about the Taliban closing all girls′ schools in some areas, while letting young girls continue to study in other areas.″

A source familiar with the inner workings of the Taliban, particularly in Maidan Wardak, reveals that although there is little indication that the group still opposes the education of girls, the issue is a not a ″priority″ for them.

“Apart from some positive international press, they don′t have much to gain from allowing girls′ schools.”

Because of this, the source said an ″extremely fragmented″ Taliban, especially the contingent based in Pakistan, are not willing to expend political capital on an issue that could lead to protests among commanders on the ground.

Wardak, however, is determined to see the process through to the end.

By Ali M. Latifi.


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