Taliban leaders ask us to believe that they will not return to the oppression of their pre-2001 rule, when they persecuted women, violated the basic rights of girls and denied them education.
Sadly, actions on the ground do not yet bear this out. Conquering fighters have reportedly seized young girls as “wives.” Women are afraid to leave their homes unless clad in full-body burqas and niqabs, and schools are already closing, with girls told that education is not for them.
In an interview in June, the Taliban leadership called for “separation between girls and boys, women and men, in universities, schools or madrassas.” While they say that girls can, for now, continue with their first three years of education, one Taliban commander stated, ominously, that “our ulema (scholars) will decide whether girls are allowed to go to school or not.” Girls, Taliban negotiators have said, will have to abide by “Islamic injunctions.”
All this puts at risk perhaps the greatest single achievement in Afghanistan in the last 20 years: the meteoric expansion of education from 1 million to 9.5 million students. At the peak, 65% of young girls were attending first grade and 4 million more girls were benefiting from primary or secondary education. Many are now training to be doctors, scientists, lawyers and are entering professional occupations for the first time.
Protecting girls from a rerun of the pre-2001 terror requires us to do more than promise tens of thousands of Afghan families the chance to resettle in the West. We need to come to the aid of the millions of children who will never be able to leave their country.
Even when our options are limited, we can show our determination to help girls fulfill their potential and to ensure that, whether it be forced marriage or trafficking, no abuse will go unreported and undocumented. Wherever humanly possible, no child in difficulty should be left unsupported and feel unloved.
So, at their emergency summit on Afghanistan next week, Group of Seven nations should make a bold offer of international aid for Afghan education: to repeat for the next 20 years the $8 billion we gave in the last 20 years. It should be overseen by UNICEF and the brave humanitarian agencies on the ground including Education Cannot Wait, the refugee organization which will be needed more than ever to school the fast-rising number of displaced children.
Aid should be distributed based on the model agreement signed between UNICEF and the Taliban last December to create more than 3,000 informal schools in Taliban-controlled areas. That set down conditions for assistance, the most important of which are the protection of girls’ and women’s rights and secure access to education. Borrowing from successful “safe schools” initiatives in Nigeria and Pakistan, we should also require proper security at and around school gates to ensure girls don’t have to fear entering a classroom.
At the same time, we should state unequivocally that aid, including the donor pledges already made for 2021-2024, will be withdrawn if the rights of girls are not upheld. And we should remind the new government that there are wider sanctions available to us, too. Afghanistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. We should say it will be judged by the extent to which it complies with the standards set by these treaties and with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which Afghanistan is also a party. The Taliban will know that they already face the scrutiny of ICC prosecutors in the Hague, who last year opened an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan since May 2003.
Any new Taliban-led government needs to understand that the eyes of the world are upon it. That’s why, from this month onward, the University of Edinburgh’s Children in Conflict Group will monitor girls’ rights in Afghanistan. In future, as proposed in the landmark report on Protecting Children in Armed Conflict, the existing Committee on the Rights of the Child might serve as a single international instrument and mechanism for accountability. Children and their families would be empowered to raise complaints directly before the Committee.
Even in these most unpromising of circumstances, we must help the children of Afghanistan bridge the gap between what they are and what they have it in themselves to become. Not only is education the best long-term investment in a child’s life, it has a critical role to play in the global fight against extremism and political instability. Somewhere in Afghanistan is a young girl who, given time and opportunity, may one day become the leader who can finally move her nation on from decades of failed leadership, corruption and extremism. It’s in all our interests to give that girl a real chance.
Gordon Brown was prime minister of the U.K. from 2007-2010 and is currently the United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education.
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