From students to labourers: The reality for Afghan girls living under the school ban
KABUL, 5 December – In August last year, girls across Afghanistan were told to leave their classrooms. To pack up their books and go home.
Some girls didn’t even make it into the classroom, arriving at school only to find the gates firmly closed, apologetic cleaners and teachers sharing the news that the Taliban had banned girls above the sixth grade from going to school.
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.
Save the Children has 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
“I used to be holding a pen and book and now I’m holding a broom – it’s a symbol of hopelessness.”
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* 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.”
“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, abouthow 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.”
When schools closed, 17-year-old Spogmai* and her entire family felt the blow.
Her mother was a teacher at the local girls’ school and lost her job. Her father – also a teacher –didn’t receive his salary for months due to the change in authorities.
The family was forced to let go of the staff who ran their small farm, and Spogmai* took over all the tasks, including looking after the livestock.
“The last time I was in school was an amazing day,” Spogmai* says, remembering her last day of school. “It was the last day of our exams, and we had three months of summer holidays, so we were having a picnic to celebrate. We were happy then. We didn’t know it would be our last day ever of school.
“I have been out of school for about a year now. I feel so sad because it was my ambition and dream to be a school principal and to work in education. I wanted to support and serve the children in my village and support orphan children.
“Nowadays, my life is bad and I’m just working at home looking after the livestock. It hurts my heart and it’s affected my health.”
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 faraway 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.”
“It was 10 years of hard work – and what will we do with that now?” asks 16-year-old Lima*, referring to the years she’s spent studying at school.
“I’ve been out of school for 13 months now. I’m happy for children still going to school, but I’m also upset and unhappy for the girls in my community. We want these opportunities too.”
Lima* now tends to a small plot of land, growing vegetables to support her family. Although her father is a doctor, the economic crisis means many of his patients can no longer afford the fees.
Her father’s income – which supports 17 people – has taken a big hit.
“When I was at school my life was good. In the afternoon after school, I did my homework and studied. But now schools are closed, I work in the field growing and harvesting vegetables. There’s no time for study,”Lima* says.
“If there is no education and the situation continues, a generation of girls will face a dark future and they won’t have any rights. There won’t be enough teachers - a problem we already face. If there are no female teachers, what will be the future of this community?”
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* 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,” shesays.
“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.”
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.
Photos and stories can be accessed here:
All photos and text: Sacha Myers / Save the Children
*Names changed to protect identities
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