Afghanistan’s Women: The Intersection of Education, Child Marriage, and Poverty

On the morning of March 23, 2022, all eyes were on Afghanistan as the Taliban walked back their promise to permit girls aged 13 and older to return to school. The announcement was delivered the night before classes were set to resume, causing shock and confusion for those who arrived only to be met by armed guards and sent home. The decision called into question teachers and attire, ultimately characterizing girls’ classes as incongruent with Sharia law and signaling the continued denial of women’s education since the hardline Islamist Taliban takeover in August 2021. 

The last-minute backtrack reveals a seemingly larger divide in Taliban leadership between its hardline and more moderate members. Those associated with the prior period of Taliban rule, in the 1990s when women’s educational and occupational opportunities were dramatically eliminated, are in the former camp. Some of the newer, less established Taliban leaders, like deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar and the Haqqani network, however, appear to now favor limited women’s rights in exchange for the benefits of international diplomacy. 

Outsiders, notably Western democracies, have tried to incentivize Taliban leadership by offering to fund teachers’ salaries with the World Bank-administered Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund, valued at nearly $2 billion. For the time being, however, those funds remain frozen, and women’s education, associated with the Western agenda.

External incentives have proven unsuccessful, but some observers note that internal opposition may pose a new challenge to the ultra-conservative Taliban rule. Since the militant group’s repressive reign in the 1990s, Afghanistan has changed markedly. The population is young, more educated, empowered, and outspoken in this view. Literacy among women has nearly doubled from 17% in 2011 to 30% in 2018. By 2020, female workforce participation had reached nearly 19%. 

Now, it is unclear what role Afghanistan’s young girls and women will play in the future, but what is certain is the widespread discontent given present circumstances. In an interview with the BBC, Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, says the decision not to allow girls to go to school has been “a very unfortunate development, one that has been reacted to strongly by the Afghan people, especially by the clergy.” This opposition was seen in March of 2022 when mass protests broke out as students, teachers, and parents took to the streets of Kabul chanting “open the schools! justice, justice” holding banners that read “education is our fundamental right, not a political plan.”

Like dozens of others interviewed by the New York Times, Arifa, a fifteen-year-old student at the top of her class, saw education as her family’s only escape from poverty, but now is, “home all day with nothing to do.” She says, “I cook or wash clothes, or clean the house. I feel like I am in a prison.”

The larger implications of women’s exclusion from education can be seen in the nexus between education, early marriage, and poverty in Afghanistan. In a country where 17% of girls are already married before the age of fifteen, it is likely that educational exclusion will eliminate employment opportunities and relegate girls further into the domestic sphere. 

A study performed by the World Bank illustrates the correlation between education and early marriage as for each year of secondary education, a girl’s likelihood of childhood marriage declines by 5%. It follows that without schooling or a future in the job market, more girls are likely to be married off earlier.

The connection between childhood marriage and poverty is also of great concern as surveys indicate that 94% of women who have been child brides report current poverty and unemployment. It is crucial to note that with schooling, however, an individual’s future wages steadily increase by 3.9% for every year of attendance according to a study performed by UNICEF. These findings underscore the value and power of education in helping to eradicate poverty. 

Overall, it appears that depriving girls of education not only contributes to the likelihood they will be married exceptionally young but that they are likely to be and remain impoverished. In foregoing female education, Afghanistan’s current rulers appear to choose tradition and control over economic development; it remains to be seen if that approach, which disaffects fifty percent of the population directly, and all of society ultimately, will be sustainable.