Afghan Schoolgirls Run Gauntlet of Abuse

Relentless daily harassment means many are forced to leave education early.

Afghan Schoolgirls Run Gauntlet of Abuse

Relentless daily harassment means many are forced to leave education early.

A school for female students in Kandahar. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A school for female students in Kandahar. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Zarlashta still dreams of graduating from school and going on to university, but she was forced to end her studies in the 11th grade.

Each day as she made her way to Kandarhar’s Malalay High School she had to run a gauntlet of abuse from men who taunted and sexually propositioned her along the way.

Once at school, Zarlashta would sit in her classes dreading the journey home and trying to figure out alternative routes.

She felt too ashamed to tell anyone about her plight.

“Even old men were telling me to go with them, and that they would pick me up from school,” she told IWPR. “I kept quiet for a while, but when my father heard about it he stopped me going to school.”

Zarlashta, now 18, misses her classmates, teachers and the whole educational environment, but knows returning to school is out of the question.

Schoolgirls in the conservative southern province of Kandahar say that verbal abuse on the way to school each day has become routine. Many are being forced to give up studying at an early age.

Women and girls’ access to education has improvised dramatically since the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001. In Kandahar, the education department said that 30 per cent of the children currently enrolled in schools were girls.

However, although some 13,000 girls enroll at schools in Kandahar each year only a tiny proportion actually graduate.

The drop-out rate is exacerbated by conservative traditions including early marriage as well as wider issues of honour.

Figures for the last educational year showed that 2,735 boys finished school compared to only 528 girls.

Lailoma Noori, deputy head of Kandahar’s department of women’s affairs, warned that street abuse was a huge problem.

Pupils complained to her about harassment every time she visited a girls’ school.

Many young women were either too intimidated to continue their education or were forced to withdraw from school by their families.

“One young girl who was harassed on the street by people in the first district of Kandahar city was not allowed to return to school after her family heard about it,” Noori continued.

Zubaida, deputy head of the children’s section of the regional branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said that they had raised this issue in public awareness programs, but with no discernible effect.

She said that the harassment sometimes became so bad that feuds would start between families.

“I myself go to schools and listen to the girls, and they say that it is a serious problem that affects their lessons and their entire life,” she said. “It is essential we solve this.”

Former teacher Mohammad Dawood Bashari agreed that said that such harassment had a serious impact on the wider society too.

He called for security officials to institute a policy of zero tolerance and arrest anyone who pestered girls on their way to school.

 “It leads to psychological problems and no one can learn well in such a situation,” he said. “Although the girls might be sitting in class they will be thinking about the abuse they hear on the streets.”

Nonetheless, street harassment has become such an everyday occurrence that many young women feel they have no choice but to keep quiet and endure it if they want to get an education.

Spozhmay is in the 12th grade at Aino High School and also helps teach 3rd grade at a private school.

“I don’t remember any week when I would not be told by various men, most of them teenagers, how good I looked and asked to give them my number and go with them,” she said.

Spozhmay added that her mother knew, but that she could not tell her father because then he would forbid her to go school and 12 years of hard studying would have been wasted.

Civil activist Sola said that endemic abuse was such that girls even faced harassment from stationary sellers when they went to buy pens and notebooks for their schoolwork.

Sola recalled having to step in when she witnessed particularly severe cases.

“I saw a girl one day who was walking fast and looking around in fear,” she said. “Then I saw that a youth was chasing her. I accompanied her all the way to her school.”

One elderly caretaker in a girls’ school, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he had tried to stop young men chasing and bothering students but with no success.

The youths simply threatened him, and the harassment seemed to be accepted by officials as simply part and parcel of daily life.

 “I swear by Allah that everyone, including the school principle, the teachers and even the department of education know about this problem, but no one cares,” he concluded.

It does not help that some officials deny that there is even a problem.

Nazar Mohammad Samimi, the spokesman of the provincial department of education, said that the problem of street harassment was negligible in Kandahar, especially compared to other provinces.

Samimi said that the security forces and the local police were coordinating with the education department to prevent any men hanging around girls’ schools to harass the students.

Any reports of abuse were baseless rumours, he continued, calling on any girls experiencing such issues to immediately tell their head teacher or the police.

 “I can’t confirm that such acts take place in Kandahar,” he said. “If a sister nonetheless faces a problem, she should immediately call us so that we can solve the issue as soon as possible.”

Islamic scholars have spoken out against such behavior.  Mawlawi Habibullah Shams said that unwanted harassment was against all precepts of Sharia law.

No real Muslim would abuse another Muslim in this way, he said, adding that families needed to teach their sons not to tease girls.

Regardless, many men claim that the young girls bring this treatment upon themselves.

Sayed Mohammad, a shopkeeper in the Shekarpoor Darwaza neighbourhood of Kandahar city, said that he had often seen girls on their way to school dressed inappropriately and talking loudly on their phones.

Passers by could not help but stare or speak to them, he continued. 

And issues of family honour mean that many Afghans feel that the solution is to withdraw girls from school rather than clamp down on those carrying out the campaign of harassment.

Sa’eeda said that her daughter had learned this the hard way.

“My daughter is very intelligent, but she was teased by some unknown youths on the street and now has to stay home all day,” Sa’eeda said.

When her daughter confided in her about the taunts she was subjected to each day en route to school, Sa’eeda advised her to ignore them and focus on her education.

But when Sa’eeda’s husband heard about the abuse, he said he could not tolerate the shame on the family.

Kandahar resident Akhtar Mohammad also said that his niece had also been forced to end her schooling due to harassment, which did not end even after her father took her to school himself each day.

 “Our family finally chose illiteracy over education,” he continued, “It is shameful in our society if a female relative is teased and her family does not defend her.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.

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