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School Closures Hurt Even More in Afghanistan

Pandemic Creates New Barriers for Women and Girls Already Facing Deep Inequality

Girls sit for lessons on a stairwell inside a school building.  Overcrowding—compounded by the demand for gender segregation—means that schools typically divide their days into two or three shifts, resulting in a school day too short to cover the full curriculum. © 2017 Paula Bronstein for Human Rights Watch

On May 28, 2020, Human Rights Watch launched a survey to learn more about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students, parents and caregivers. As of June 6, people in 54 countries had completed the survey; it’s still open here—please fill it out! The following dispatches highlight some of the themes that have come through most strongly, and we’ll keep adding to this page. The survey is helping us identify issues of concern and hear from people experiencing them—any data is not intended to be representative of the experiences of the broader population.

Amid government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of children around the world have faced school closures, and many are struggling to keep up their studies. But few governments were as poorly prepared as Afghanistan, where schools are closed until at least September. In an ongoing Human Rights Watch survey on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students and caregivers, Afghans described trying to study amidst both war and a pandemic.

Afghanistan’s schools were in crisis before the pandemic. The number of children studying is falling in many provinces as conflict escalates and donor funding ends. Girls were already behind; Afghanistan has many more schools for boys than girls, and by upper secondary school, fewer than 36 percent of students are girls.

But now things are even worse. Online study works for few students. The World Bank estimates that only 14 percent of Afghans use the internet, and with 55 percent of people below the poverty line, many families cannot afford internet or devices to access it. With only 30 percent of women and 55 percent of men literate, many parents cannot help their children study.

Girls may be less likely to make it back to school. Respondents to the Human Rights Watch survey said that out-of-school girls face greater housework burdens, social isolation, and less internet access. A 2019 study found Afghan women spent 18.7 hours a day on childcare, care for others, preparing food, and cleaning, while men spent 5.6 hours a day on these tasks. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, caregiving responsibilities have increased dramatically around the world, often pushing women out of paid employment.

Abuse at home is another risk. One respondent wrote, “Afghans live in big families.… If they stay home every day it leads to family violence and children are the victims normally.” Thirty-five percent of Afghan girls marry as children, and being out of school is associated with child marriage. Afghan girls who did not study are 3 times as likely to marry before age 18 as girls who completed secondary education.

The Afghan government and its international donors should work to minimize the impact of the pandemic on women and girls. Schools should track which students return to school and reach out to missing children, especially girls. The government should strengthen services for victims of violence and ensure that economic recovery plans reach women. Afghan women and girls can’t face another setback. 

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