5 December 2022 - Afghanistan

From students to labourers: The reality for Afghan girls living under the school ban

Zainab*(16) is banned from school and now spends her days washing dishes and cooking, Afghanistan. Sacha Myers/Save The Children.

My colleague held back tears as she described how her sister, denied her education, was now contemplating suicide.

We all sat in silence in the meeting room, our hearts fuming at the injustice.

Her sister is one of thousands of secondary school girls in Afghanistan who has been banned from attending school since the Taliban regained control in August last year.

Overnight, Afghanistan’s teenage girls went from dreaming of a future where they could be doctors, engineers or teachers, to fearing a future of complete darkness.

Instead of spending their days reading, writing and learning, hundreds of thousands of girls now spend their days working on farms or in other people’s homes, weaving carpets, looking after their younger siblings or the family’s livestock, collecting drinking water or cooking bread. 

They’ve been transformed from students into child labourers against their will.

I’ve worked as a humanitarian in 17 different countries for more than a decade, from the war in Iraq to drought in Somalia and the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The oppression of women and girls is, sadly, nothing new.

But there has been something especially painful about watching the hard-won rights of Afghan girls being ripped away overnight.

Over the past few months, I’ve travelled across Afghanistan documenting how the ban has impacted girls’ lives. These are some of their stories and their photos. In their hands – where they used to hold pens and books – they hold tools, buckets and dishes: items that represent how they now spend their days.

Nazaneen*, 16

Nazaneen*, 16, banned from school in Afghanistan. Photo credit: Sacha Myers/Save the Children.

Nazaneen’s* hands are cracked and itchy from spending 12 hours a day weaving carpets. But she says it’s the boredom that gets to her the most.

From my physical to my mental health, everything is ruined. It’s so hard to concentrate on such a boring and repetitive task for hours and hours and it makes me very upset and depressed,” 16-year-old Nazaneen* says.

It was a black day when the schools were closed. We had exams but my mother said we couldn’t go to school because they were closed. That was the day my heart broke. Whenever I think about that day, I cry because it was the day that my future and hopes disappeared.

I don’t even think about the hopes I had to become a doctor. All I think about now is my uncertain future. I really have no idea what tomorrow will bring. But for sure, I know my future won’t be as good as it could have been if I was still attending school.”

While Nazaneen’s parents don’t force her to work, she says she wants to support her family. The economic crisis currently gripping the country means her father’s work as a builder has dried up. He now works in a brick factory. But the money isn’t enough to cover costs – especially given the skyrocketing cost of food.

Despite the hardships, Nazaneen’s parents still give her hope. “My father tells me I will still have a future and that I will still be an independent woman and have all the things I wish for,” Nazaneen* says.

Mahnor*, 13

Mahnor*(13) is banned from school and now spends her days looking after the family’s livestock in Afghanistan. Sacha Myers/Save the Children.

Mahnor* was her family’s only hope. With her four older brothers battling drug addictions and her father suffering from eye problems, Mahnor* thought she could solve everything – if she could just finish school. 

It made me happy and proud when I could answer all the questions during class and I had done all the homework. I had hopes to become a doctor or teacher. I never wanted to be a housewife,” Mahnor*, 13, says.

“When I was going to school, I hoped to become an independent woman who could bring my brothers out of their addiction. But now I won’t be able to help them because I’m not in school. I have no hope and now I’ve accepted that I won’t be able to help my brothers. 

“I don’t feel good when I do the household chores. I’m not going to school anymore to hold a pen or book, instead, I’m holding grass to feed the goats.” 

Zainab*, 16

 Zainab*(16) spends her days washing dishes and cooking, Afghanistan. Sacha Myers/Save the Children.

I feel like my legs and hands are tied up with a rope and I cannot be the person I want to be,” says Zainab*, 16, about how the school ban makes her feel.   

From school, to food, to women going out, to clothing, to having to wear the hijab – we have faced huge changes in our lives. Previously, I could leave the house and go to the shops. But now I can’t, so I’m not going out.”

Zainab now spends her days doing housework, such as washing the dishes and feeding the chickens.

It’s hard for me because before when I was going to school, I never did these jobs as I went to school and did my homework,” she says, “It’s had an impact on my mental health. I was happy when I was going to school, but now I’m sad all day. It’s not a good feeling.

“I have a WhatsApp group with my peers…[they] feel hopeless like me. They are just doing housework and not studying either. We share memories from school, and this brings us a little bit of happiness.”

Nasima*, 15

Nasima*(15) is banned from school and now spends her days collecting water and growing vegetables, Afghanistan. Sacha Myers/Save the Children

Nasima* feels very alone in the world. Her mother died five years ago, and now that she is banned from school, Nasima’s* whole social network has collapsed.

In the past, I had a good relationship with my friends and teachers, and I miss these friendships. I haven’t seen my school friends in about a year,” 15-year-old Nasima* says.

We used to learn from each other and talk to each other. I don’t have that now. My family is uneducated, so I have no one to consult with now. This has had a negative impact on me.

I collect water three times a day. The path is very steep and difficult, and the bucket is very big. I prepare breakfast for my siblings, then I milk the goats and make food. Then I wash the dishes and clothes…and work with my father in the fields tending to the plants

With this current situation, when I look at my future, it will look like it does today - carrying water from far away places and working. If you look at other societies, women are educated and empowered. So why are we held back compared to other women? This makes me sad, and it makes me cry.”

Saima*, 14

Saima*(14) is banned from school and now spends her days baking breading and looking after her family’s livestock, Afghanistan. Sacha Myers/Save the Children

Fourteen-year-old Saima* worries about the girls in her community who are no longer at school and are now at risk of early marriage and child labour.

Most of the time, I bake bread for the community, and this is how I earn money for the family. For one piece of bread, I only earn 4 Afs (USD $0.05). I also tend to our animals. I’m underage but doing hard labour. Many children are now involved in child labour,” Saima* says.  

If I reach 17 or 18 years of age and I’m still not in school, my parents may engage me to someone. School is better than getting married. But if schools don’t open, then parents will be obliged to engage their daughters.” 

Saima also worries about the impact of the school ban on girls’ mental health. Education is an important part of our life and if we can’t go to school, we lose hope. And without hope, we lose our life,” she says.

Asiya*, 15

Asiya*(15) is banned from school and now spends her days sweeping her family’s home, Afghanistan. Sacha Myers/Save the Children

Asiya* and her sister found out they had been banned from school on the morning of their exams.

Last August, we were taking the Pashto language exam. My father was saying the situation wasn’t good and he was worried about us going to school. But my sister started crying…and she didn’t want to fail. So, our parents let us go,” Asiya*, 15, says.

We went to school but when we opened the school gate, the cleaner told us the school was closed and to go home. It’s such a sad memory. I felt so hopeless.”

Asiya had dreams of becoming a doctor – inspired by her childhood doctor who helped treat her kidney problem – but now spends her days doing housework with her mother.

This is my message for the world: I used to be holding a pen and book and now I’m holding a broom – it’s a symbol of hopelessness,” she says. “For anyone who is seeing me and hearing me, please give equal rights to boys and girls for education. Please reopen our schools. We want to go back to school.” 

I feel so much pain for what Afghan girls must endure every day and I’ve walked away from many interviews in the past few months feeling a little broken inside. But I also have overwhelming admiration for their sheer strength and determination.

I hope people around the world will heed the calls of girls in Afghanistan and take a stand for their rights. Because Afghan girls cannot fight this fight alone. They need all the help they can get. 

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Save the Children runs almost 4,000 Community-Based Education classes in Afghanistan for children who cannot access the formal education system and is providing children and teachers with learning and classroom kits. The organisation also works with female secondary school graduates to support them to become teachers and pass the university entrance exam.

Save the Children is calling on the Taliban to immediately allow girls of all ages to return to school. There is no issue – administrative, logistical or otherwise – that can possibly justify the continuation of a policy that denies girls access to their education.

*Names changed to protect identities