On March 21 the Taliban promised to reopen all schools in Afghanistan, ending their seven-month de-facto ban on girls attending secondary school. Two days later, as many girls were preparing for the first day of the new school term, the Taliban reversed this decision, announcing that girls’ secondary schools were to remain closed – indefinitely – until the Taliban put in place policies they say are compliant with “principles of Islamic law and Afghan culture,” including further restrictions on schoolgirls’ dress.
The reversal is cruel, and feels provocative, coming days before a March 31 international donor conference that aims to raise US$4.4 billion to help alleviate the desperate humanitarian crisis gripping the country.
The humanitarian crisis has partly been driven by the United States and other donor governments, which have cut off most non-humanitarian support and revoked the Afghan central bank’s credentials. The consequences have been devastating; the economy can’t function, people cannot work, and most families are struggling to feed themselves. The United Nations says that 95 percent of Afghans, and almost all female-headed households, are now going hungry.
The donor conference could be an important step toward ending this crisis. But donors are also looking to the Taliban to make concessions in return for aid and recognition. Donors have focused much of their attention on whether the Taliban would reopen girls’ secondary schools, and the issue has gained huge symbolic importance.
By doubling down on their ban on secondary school-aged girls studying, the Taliban are sending their own message. Donors hoped that the reopening of girls’ secondary schools would be an important indication that the Taliban were willing to compromise. These hopes now feel too optimistic. The Taliban seem determined to continue their wholesale rollback of virtually all rights of women and girls.
To progress, Afghanistan desperately needs girls and women to be educated. The Taliban should immediately reopen all girls’ secondary schools and end their many violations of women’s and girls’ rights.
Donors should keep the pressure on the Taliban to end human rights violations while remembering that their assistance is desperately needed; not by the Taliban, but by Afghans who are hungry and children who are dying of malnutrition. Balancing these competing priorities is hard but not impossible, and a commitment to doing so is owed to Afghans, whose desperate situation has largely been shaped by decisions in foreign capitals.